Brock University: Brock co-led research explores connection between nature, preventing disease among new immigrants

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For children and young people who’ve recently settled in Canada, a trek in the woods may be just what the doctor ordered to prevent obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

Sujane Kandasamy, a post-doctoral fellow with the INfant, Child and youth Health (INCH) Lab and Department of Child and Youth Studies at Brock University, is co-leading a research team aiming to create a “connecting to nature intervention” for new immigrant families that promotes outdoor activities as a way of avoiding future chronic illness.

Some of these activities include hiking and walking in parks, community gardening and greater integration with existing community-led programs.

“Connecting to the natural environment can be very beneficial for physical health as well as mental health and wellness,” says Kandasamy, who joined Brock in January 2022 after completing her PhD at McMaster University.

The research is taking place in the Riverdale area of Stoney Creek, where many immigrants settle when they first arrive in Canada, says Kandasamy.

The project, ‘Strengthening Community Roots: Anchoring Newcomers in Wellness and Sustainability’ (SCORE!), has been awarded $870,000 from the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Co-leading the research is Sonia Anand, Professor of Medicine and Tier 1 Canada Research Chair at McMaster University, Brock Associate Professor of Child and Youth Studies and Canada Research Chair in Youth Mental Health and Performance Matthew Kwan, and other researchers at McMaster University and the University of Toronto.

The researchers will work with the Riverdale community to design and conduct research and analyze the study’s results.

In parallel, the team will create a diverse Community Advisory-Action Board involving different sectors to guide research activities, including pilot-testing the proposed inventions and how to measure success through things like school performance, child mental health and healthy eating practices.

The project’s Community Advisory-Action Board will consist of members from neighbourhood families, public health bodies, schools, faith-based organizations, local non-profit organizations, the City of Hamilton, McMaster University and neighbourhood organizations, among others.

“As this project is rooted in multi-sectoral partnerships, we envision that cultivating different avenues to bring these diverse groups together will help sustain longer-term collaborations,” says Kandasamy. “There have been many individuals and organizations working hard in the community; we want to build and strengthen those existing networks.”

Eating unhealthy foods and being physically inactive are major risk factors for developing obesity and Type 2 diabetes. These unhealthy behaviours frequently start in childhood, says Kandasamy.

She notes how recent immigrants to Canada, compared to populations that have been in the country for a long time, face health and social inequalities, including lower consumption of fruits and vegetables; lower rates of physical activity among adults and children; lower employment rates; and living in below-standard housing.

Food insecurity and poverty rates tend to be higher in newly arrived populations, and “non-white children have a higher incidence of obesity and Type 2 diabetes in childhood compared to white children,” says Kandasamy.

“Establishing healthier habits in childhood through a strong connection to the environment has the potential to lead to long-term behaviour change through the life course,” she says.

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