During the past three years, Ball State student Anamarie Booher has taken three trips to Ecuador to job shadow local Ecuadorian doctors.

Each trip, she found similarities between residents of that country and those from her hometown of Muncie.

The 22-year-old senior found people suffering from dehydration, health issues related to a lack of physical activity, and blood-pressure problems caused by poor eating habits.

As a result of her trips to South America, Anamarie decided to leave behind her plans to go to medical school and instead focus on a career that could help keep people out of out of doctors’ offices in the first place.

“I knew I didn’t want to have a role where I’d be constantly seeing people get sick from the same things,” said Anamarie, who is now studying health education and promotion. “I thought that if we educated them, built programs, or gave them access to the tools they need to be healthy, then we wouldn’t have to keep seeing people get sick.”

Community-centered

This Spring semester, Anamarie discovered Cardinal Zumba, a fitness program launched in 2017 by Ball State’s College of Health that is free and open to the public.

“People love this dance-based workout that focuses on combining music and dance with good musical rhythms. It’s amazing how much they smile as they dance — not even realizing it’s exercise.”

And when you combine nutrition, Cardinal Zumba is a game changer, said Christina Jones, assistant professor of nutrition and health science, who co-directs the program with Shannon Powers, assistant professor of kinesiology.

Myah Swoveland leads a Cardinal Zumba class.

The College of Health created Cardinal Zumba to provide fitness and nutrition education to those who might not otherwise have access.

Jones describes Cardinal Zumba as a “community-centered, physical-activity and nutrition program directed by students in the College of Health that aims to increase a wide variety of health outcomes for the citizens of Muncie. We bring people together to have a good time while learning how to make better choices about their meals.”

Every Monday and Thursday in the Harvest Christian Fellowship gymnasium on Muncie’s east side, attendees are led by a Zumba fitness instructor for about an hour-long class. Then they are encouraged to stay for the nutrition-education portion, to learn about keeping a healthy diet while sampling healthy snacks and recipes.

“Our focus is primarily those who lack the ability to access the normal resources of health; they might not be able to pay for a fitness class or might never be able to pay for a visit with a nutritionist,” Jones said. “We hope to fill that need with existing resources we already have through our students and what they’re receiving on campus.”

Learning what works

Anamarie and five more students from the College of Health — ranging from graduate assistants to undergraduate students — run the program, assisted by volunteers. Each student has a different role, and those receiving class credit rotate between four different specializations throughout the semester: nutrition, exercise testing, health promotion and working the front desk, checking people in and ensuring their fitness assessments are complete.

Those assessments include biometric measures, blood-pressure readings and hand-grip strength tests. Participants are also evaluated through nutrition literacy assessments. These assessments produce research data for Jones, who focuses more on the nutrition aspect, and Powers, who concentrates on the exercise component of the program.

Jones and Powers are also researching if the combination of exercise and nutrition instruction can decrease obesity and increase nutritional literacy in low-resourced and minority audiences.

Powers points to data that shows people who live in rural areas are less educated and have little access to medical care or exercise opportunities, becoming far more likely to suffer from obesity, to have Type 2 diabetes and to die from cancer.

To keep the program free of charge, Jones and Powers secured funding from a Ball State Creative Teaching Grant and partners such as the Indiana Minority Health Coalition; IU Health Ball Memorial Hospital; the Indiana Society for Physical Health, Recreation and Dance; and Purdue Extension.

“The coolest thing for me to see is when the participants form those friendships with other people exercising, or even with the staff members of Zumba,” Anamarie says. “I think for some of our participants, it makes a difference just being surrounded by either people who are trying to make a healthy change in their life or are committed to exercising and eating right.”