Feds Spend $1.7 Million on Exercise Program for Refugees

‘Community partners’ go into mosques to talk about physical activity in Minnesota

Somali refugees in a grocery store Maine
Somali refugees in a grocery store Maine / AP
March 2, 2016

The National Institutes of Health is spending over $1.6 million on an exercise program for immigrants and refugees, which is sending "community partners" into mosques to talk about physical activity.

"Healthy Immigrant Families: Working Together to Move More and to Eat Well" is an ongoing five year study trying to create a "sustainable, socio-culturally appropriate" physical activity initiative for refugees in Minnesota.

The researchers claim that immigrants and refugees are healthier than Americans when they get to the United States, and are concerned refugees will assimilate and adopt the eating habits of Americans.

"Across many measures, immigrant and refugee populations arrive to the US healthier than the general population, but the longer they reside in the US, the more they approximate the cardiovascular risk profiles of the general population," the grant states. "These declines are mediated, in part, by less physical activity and lower dietary quality upon immigration among both adults and their children."

The project is developing a "physical activity and nutrition intervention" for refugees led by trained "Family Health Promoters."

"This project will broadly explore the efficacy of community participation in the design and implementation of an intervention to improve physical activity and nutrition among a demographic whose health is critical to the future of this country," the grant said. "Given that over one million immigrants and refugees arrive in this country each year, the potential impact of this work on public health is considerable."

The project, which began in 2012 and will continue through November, has received $1,679,030 from taxpayers. The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., is conducting the study.

While the government is concerned about the eating habits and exercise levels of refugees, polling shows the majority of Americans are worried about the screening process of Syrian refugees after the terrorist attacks in Paris in November.

The Obama administration recently signaled it wants to increase the number of Syrian refugees coming to the United States on top of the 10,000 refugees President Obama ordered the government to accept this fiscal year.

Over 3,300 refugees arrived in Minnesota in 2014 mainly from Somalia, Burma, and Iraq.

Contrary to the notion that refugees are healthier than Americans, many had health problems, according to state records. Twenty-two percent who directly settled in Minnesota had Tuberculosis; 15 percent had a parasitic infection; 7 percent elevated blood lead; 5 percent had Hepatitis B; and 1 percent had Syphilis.

Among secondary arrivals, or refugees who originally resettled to another state in the United States before moving to Minnesota, 32 percent had Tuberculosis, and 12 percent had a parasitic infection.

The government-funded project has sent "community partners" into mosques to talk about healthy eating and exercise.

Published results for the project revealed that participants were recruited at a local mosque, where focus groups were then held for Somali men to "discuss things that are difficult about being physically active."

Reasons Somali men gave for not exercising included "embarrassment about using unfamiliar clothes and exercise techniques in public."

"Somali men share information on a daily basis at the Mosque, coffee shops, and markets," the researchers said. "Success stories about a holistic health program may inspire community members to participate."