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Listen, learn, and understand : an examination of the cultural context of body weight, physical activity, and diet in urban Aboriginal youth.



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Urban Aboriginal youth are one of the fastest growing populations in Canada (Statistics Canada, 2008). There is growing concern with the increasing rate of overweight and obesity among Aboriginal youth (Reading, 2009). Although this unique group is quickly growing, and possibly experiencing more ill health than non-Aboriginal youth their voices are currently absent in Aboriginal health literature. Drawing on the voices of urban Aboriginal youth to understand their perspectives is important for the promotion and enhancement of overall health (RCAP, 1996). One specific topic absent from the literature is the influence of culture on body weight, physical activity, and diet for urban Aboriginal youth. (Gittelsohn et al., 1996; Kumanyika, 1993; Marchessault, 1999; Thompson, Gifford, & Thorpe, 2000; Willows, 2005). Culture is seen as the beliefs, behaviours, norms, attitudes, and social arrangements that form patterns in the lives of members (LeCompte & Shensul, 1999, pg 21). The purpose of this study was to examine the influence of culture on body weight, physical activity, and diet for urban Aboriginal youth. This study used the qualitative methodology of focused ethnography. The study setting was an urban Aboriginal high school in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. Fifteen participants (11 females, 4 males) took part in this study. Participants were between the ages of 14-21, with a mean age of 16.73. Methods of data collection included semi-structured interviews, informal conversations, talking circles, and participant observation. The researcher spent 10-15 hours a week for eight months on site in the research setting. In this study four themes describe the influence of culture on body weight, diet, and physical activity. These themes were: (i) acceptance of our bodies, (ii) playing together, past and present, (iii) traditions and sharing, and (iv) the struggle. The young urban Aboriginal participants in this study believed that a healthy body weight comes in a variety of sizes. There was a general acceptance in the diversity of healthy body weights and sizes. Group physical activity and competitive activity was favoured among participants. Traditional physical activities such as dancing, hunting, and fishing were cited as important by all participants. Participants believed traditional foods to be healthy and desirable, and those who reported eating traditional foods less frequently desired to eat them more often. Food sharing networks consisting of friends and family were reported as a way to address food insecurity and acquire traditional foods from the participants’ home reserves. In this study barriers to physical activity and diet for urban Aboriginal youth were income, location or residence, and transportation. Participants attempted to overcome them when it was possible, which highlights a resiliency among urban Aboriginal youth. In conclusion, this study offers valuable information on the influence of culture on body weight, physical activity, and diet for urban Aboriginal youth. Participants in this study engaged in a variety of traditional and cultural activities. These activities increased the healthy eating habits and physical activity levels of the participants. Thus, cultural engagement may be a health enhancing mechanism for urban Aboriginal youth in Canada.



Youth, Urban, Body weight, Aboriginal, Diet, Culture, Physical activity, Ethnography



Master of Science (M.Sc.)


College of Kinesiology


College of Kinesiology


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