When Daheia Barr-Anderson was growing up in South Carolina, she learned at an early age that girls were expected to behave like “young ladies.” In her family, that meant “kids were not supposed to move too much or be seen too much,” she says.
But that belief system did not prevail for Barr-Anderson. Motivating children and adolescents to move is at the core of her life’s work.
Barr-Anderson is an associate professor in the School of Kinesiology who specializes in the behavioral aspects of physical activity. She focuses on African American children and adolescents to find underlying individual and interpersonal barriers that contribute to obesity in families. A physical activity epidemiologist with a public health background, she is working to understand what motivates people to be physically active.
“I have an interest in working with African American females because of the low levels of physical activity and high levels of sedentary behavior,” she says. “I take a family-based approach, looking at how family members’ behavior may have an influence on the physical activity behavior of children.”
She strives to be a role model through her research and as a mom.
“I really focus on physical activity because of my two girls,” says Barr-Anderson. “I don’t want them to be a statistic. Over 40 percent of African American girls are overweight and obese compared to their same-age, different-race peers.”
Social dynamics of physical activity
Barr-Anderson directs the Behavioral Physical Activity Laboratory (BPAL), conducting studies that focus on physical activity as a behavior. One study explores how the physical and social environments of families influence physical activity and healthy eating interventions in African American adolescents.
“In the homes of African American families, we try to understand the dynamics between parents and children,” she says. “We want to see how this plays out in terms of influencing physical activity and healthy eating behaviors.”
She also has a study incorporating yoga to address obesity and cardiovascular disease in African American women. She created a yoga intervention for African American women who have high blood pressure rates, high levels of stress, and low levels of physical activity.
Barr-Anderson received her PhD from the University of Maryland in kinesiology with an emphasis in exercise epidemiology and her MS in public health from the University of South Carolina. After researching postdoctoral positions, she accepted an offer from the U of M’s School of Public Health in the Division of Epidemiology and Community Health.
“It was 16 degrees when I came for a two-day visit,” she recalls. “I was sitting around a table with professors, post-docs, master’s and PhD students, and there was this amazing dialogue going on. I realized this is where I want to be.”
Barr-Anderson places a priority on talking with her daughters about life and wellness.
“I want my girls to know that the possibilities are endless and they can be whatever they want to be,” she says. “I never want them to feel limited by race or gender, the status quo, or anything that could be considered a barrier.”
It’s a given that Barr-Anderson is not raising her daughters to be her family’s definition of “young ladies.”
“My girls are not like that—they’re free,” she laughs. “We move all the time. I want them to move and be free.”
Adapted by Marta Fahrenz from a story by Erin Kunesh | Photo by Erica Loeks | Fall 2019