Scholar Story: Daheia Barr-Anderson, PhD

“I want to better understand the factors that influence obesity in the African-American community. I don’t want to just have the conversation; I want to create action in these communities.”

Growing up, Daheia Barr-Anderson always knew she wanted to make a difference. Being from rural South Carolina, she was constantly aware of the health and economic disparities within her community.

Since those early days, Daheia has spent her life trying to understand the determinants of health and how intervention can prevent people from experiencing disease.

Bringing Yoga into Health Disparities Research

Daheia’s passion for health goes way back. As a child, she would tell her mother her dream was to be a women’s health doctor. As she got older, Daheia discovered her true passion was physical activity epidemiology.

“I was a very active child growing up and even as an adult, so as soon as I discovered this line of work, I knew it was my calling,” she says.

After completing her master’s degree in epidemiology from the University of South Carolina, Daheia started a research project that examined the health disparities between U.S.-born and foreign-born blacks. The main difference she found was U.S.-born blacks suffered from negative health outcomes and engaged in more unhealthy behaviors than foreign-born blacks. Among the area of inquiry was the amount of physical activity.

In another study, Daheia examined how physical activity could be used to treat a variety of illnesses and chronic conditions. She has incorporated her personal love of yoga to help reduce stress and positively affect blood pressure and physical activity in overweight African-American women.

“I want to continue building on the practice of yoga, because it has a larger impact than just moving your body,” Daheia notes. “The mind-body connection with the deep breathing can create a calming effect that, in this current political climate, can help to address the high levels of stress and anxiety people are experiencing.”

Making Strong Women Stronger

Through her research, Daheia has discovered that African-American community health is extremely nuanced.

“We are a population that’s really complex,” she says. “Income is usually a protective factor for negative health outcomes, such as overweight and obesity, but high-income African-American women are highly susceptible to obesity. It is sometimes referred to as ‘strong woman syndrome,’ which means we take care of everyone but ourselves.”

Helping African-American women make healthier decisions is Daheia’s personal and professional goal. She also wants her work to help introduce policies that benefit the community around issues like physical activity and access to healthy food. In her work, Daheia has observed racial segregation when it comes to housing, which has made it difficult for people to access reasonably priced healthy foods.

“You shouldn’t have to come from money to be healthy,” she says.

Modeling healthy behaviors within a family, she says, is likewise critical, as eating habits and the value placed on exercise moves through the generations. When parents are active and healthy, their children are more likely to be as well.

Creating Lifelong Connections

In 2009, Daheia received her first research grant from the New Connections program to begin connecting the dots between women’s health and their activity and food choices. From the start, she was drawn to the network of other scholars.

“I love being connected to such a strong network that truly is invested in not just ‘talking the talk’ but ‘walking the walk,’” Daheia says.

In attending meetings, Daheia connected with other junior faculty, seasoned mentors, and New Connections staff.

“The program provides support for scholars from disadvantaged backgrounds,” she adds. “I can’t put into words how valuable that support was for me.”