Research on the importance of physical activity is the cornerstone of Olivia Affuso‘s work as an associate professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. And Olivia practices what she preaches. She helped found the Birmingham chapter of Black Girls RUN!, is chair of the board for Girls on the Run Birmingham Metro, and serves as vice president for the Birmingham Ultra Trail Society. When she’s not doing research, teaching or serving her community, Olivia is busy tackling her 50 Before 50 list, a list of 50 adventures she’d like to embark upon before her 50th birthday, a list that includes several 50K (yes, that’s FIFTY-K) races, surfing lessons, aerial yoga, roller derby and more. Let’s learn more about Olivia and her adventures!
Tell us more about your work at UAB.
I am an associate professor of epidemiology within the School of Public Health. The primary part of my job is [being] a researcher and then secondary is teaching in different ways. I hadn’t been doing in-class teaching until this year, but I’ve been mentoring a lot of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, teaching them all about research.
And what is the focus of your research?
If I had to have an umbrella for my research then it would be chronic disease epidemiology, and primarily I focus on obesity-related topics and also physical activity in women and girls.
Encouraging physical activity in women and girls of color is particularly important to you. Why is that?
Obesity is really high in the African-American community, and even though physical activity is not the primary way to overcome obesity, it definitely is a positive health behavior that helps to deal with obesity-related issues. We know that physical activity is good for hypertension, for preventing diabetes, for dealing with stressful situations, and I think a lot of programming has not necessarily focused on African-American populations. So there is a disparity that needs to be dealt with. I’m all about physical activity for women and girls of all races; I think it’s the disparity that puts the onus on targeting African-American women and girls.
What’s the most challenging part of your job at UAB?
Trying to get grant funding. That’s tough across the board because the resources are becoming more limited as more people are getting into academic research. The pie is still the same size; now we’re just slicing it into thinner pieces.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
I think the most rewarding part is watching my students grow over time. That’s why I keep doing it.
You were a speaker at this year’s TEDxBirmingham. For readers who weren’t in attendance, can you give a brief summary of your talk?
I think my introduction summed it up — BMI SUCKS! I was taking a look at how a simple measure — that is just weight relative to height — has taken on this mind of its own in the way that people use it to discriminate against people in terms of health care access. We need to have something else, especially when insurance companies are using it to deny people access.
On your website, OliviaAdventures.com, you’re keeping track of 50 new things you’d like to try before your 50th birthday later this year. What have you done so far?
I’ve run a couple 50K races. I’ve done SOL Dancing and aerial yoga. I went to Utah and did snowboarding. I did Ragnar, a 200-mile relay race, in California with 11 other African-American women — 12 women, two vans, two days, 200 miles. That was fun! The past month I’ve been doing CrossFit. And I taught myself how to knit. Now I have this idea to knit this trail running-related blanket.
Who do you hope to inspire by sharing your adventures on your website and via social media?
Primarily I want to inspire all women and girls, but I think it’s particularly important for people to see an African-American woman just going for it and doing a variety of things, not just exercise-related things, but just things that are new. For example, traveling to Nepal is one of the things on my list. I’m sharing this so women can give themselves permission to try things. It doesn’t matter what your age is, try something new.
What are some of the adventures left on the list?
Pole fitness. I’m going to be taking surfing lessons. And I’m doing a mountain trail race.
Where do you like to seek adventure in Birmingham?
I like Red Mountain Park because the terrain is very similar to a lot of the races that I run. But I really like Oak Mountain because of the variety of activities I could do out there — stand-up paddleboarding, swimming, bike riding and there are just so many trails for running and hiking and things to see going up to King’s Chair.
What are some of your other favorite places in Birmingham?
One of my favorite Birmingham places to go grab a snack and chat with people at the bar is Little Donkey. I love Mexican food. I could eat Mexican every single day. And I really like Carrigan’s. Of course, we have all these microbreweries here. Even though I don’t go that often, I like the fact that they’re here and if I want to go, I can go.
You’re obviously very health-conscious, but do you have any guilty pleasures?
Coconut cake from Chez Fonfon. I told them that if they stop serving coconut cake I would no longer be coming to support their business. I also like eating at food trucks. Right now one of the coolest spots is Hotbox on the back patio of Parkside Cafe. They have really good chicken wings.
What’s something people would be surprised to learn about you?
I think some people would be surprised to learn that I’m an introvert. They don’t understand how much I need to decompress after I’ve been hanging out with them. They wouldn’t realize that on a Saturday I could be in my house reading a book or crafting and be 100 percent fine.
What advice would you give to women who want to be active but can’t find the motivation or can’t find the time?
For the person who lacks the motivation or confidence, find someone to do activities with. People need people. From the time perspective, I would tell a woman to find a friend who has it all together, even though they have kids, family and a job, and ask them how do they do it.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
I think the best advice that I’ve ever gotten was to be myself. I think for a long time I was living up to the expectations of my family or society or my job or whatever, and the minute I put all those things down to just really try to be myself, the floodgates opened.
What are three things you can’t live without?
Good coffee, wool socks and comfortable shoes
Thank you, Olivia! Learn more about Olivia and her adventures at oliviaadventures.com.
And thank you to Eric and Jamie Gay of Eric & Jamie Photography for the beautiful photos of Olivia at Red Mountain Park.
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