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Healthy support for city’s Puerto Rican community

A new community outreach program designed by a Northeastern University professor aims to improve the health of Boston residents of Puerto Rican descent, who suffer from maladies such as heart disease and diabetes at a disproportionately high rate.

Carmen Sceppa, an associate professor of health sciences in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences and director of the graduate program in exercise science, will spearhead the Heart Healthy Initiative, which begins in August.

Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Heart Healthy Initiative is a project of Northeastern’s Center for Population Health and Health Disparities. The initiative will provide some 250 Boston residents with peer support and a culturally based diet and exercise program.

“It has to be a community approach,” Sceppa said, noting that the goal of the project is to prove that participatory community-based interventions can be effective and sustainable.

“Research has showed there are some common solutions that apply to everyone, but there are also local lessons that can apply to specific groups,” she said. “We’re taking these lessons about exercise and healthy eating and applying them locally so people can integrate them into their lives.”

The program will include small-group interactions with peer mentors, who will coordinate group walks and activities, many of which will be organized in collaboration with the Boston Centers for Youth and Families.

The initiative, Sceppa said, is tailored to fit the Puerto Rican community’s lifestyle. She noted that traditional Puerto Rican meals, for example, tend to include large quantities of white rice, which the program does not advocate cutting out of their diet.

“We don’t want them to eliminate something important to their culture, but we want to show them they can make little changes that make a big difference by, say, adding vegetables or substituting brown rice for white,” Sceppa said.

“When you think of medical advice, it tends to be very prescriptive: Stop doing that, start doing this,” Sceppa added. “We really want to reach people on a very personal level to influence the whole community — these interventions must line up with cultural values and cannot feel like a chore if we want them to stick.”

The Heart Healthy Initiative will kick off Aug. 11 with a party featuring free Zumba classes. The event will take place at Blackstone Community Center at 50 West Brookline St. from noon to 4 p.m.

Puerto Rican adults interested in learning about the Healthy Heart Initiative should contact program manager Shirley Tejada at s.tejada@neu.edu or 617-373-2505.

To learn more about the Northeastern’s Center for Population Health and Health Disparities please visit http://www.northeastern.edu/cphhd/

View selected publications by Carmen Sceppa in IRis, Northeastern’s digital archive.