National Women's Health Week with Anna Wilkinson, PhD

Published: May 19, 2023


Anna Wilkinson, PhD, Associate Professor, Epidemiology, Human Genetics & Environmental Sciences,/figcaption>

UTHealth Houston School of Public Health Austin Campus professor Dr. Anna Wilkson’s research focuses on the primary prevention of tobacco and alcohol use as well as obesity prevention and the promotion of physical activity among youth and young adults. 

In honor of National Women's Health Week, we asked Dr. Wilkinson about her research on physical activity and tobacco use among girls and women.

What first interested you in studying physical activity among youth and young adults?

The possible belief that if you engage in physical activity and positive activities it might take the space, time, and energy that you would dedicate towards more drinking, smoking, or other negative activities. It was perhaps a naive belief because you have kids who both do sports and also live very healthy lifestyles, but others engaged in sports because they like to do outgoing kinds of things, and that's why they engage in all those other behaviors like drinking and smoking.

Why is promoting physical activity important?

It is important for a variety of reasons including for our mental health and for physical health.

What life factors impact physical activity among women?

I would say among women, it's their careers and children, their family structure.

If you end up in a career where you have limited time and you then don't have adequate family support, then your ability to engage in physical activity is going to be more difficult. If you are the person who is running the entire house all the time, you may forget that you need to engage in physical activity, or you may not assign yourself the opportunity to engage in physical activity depending on how big of a household  you are running. And sometimes that person who's at home is just doing absolutely everything all the time. 

From your research, what do you believe is the best way to encourage physical activity among young people, particularly young women?

I think a lot of it comes down to taking away competition and making it more collaborative and just enjoyable. Most of us are never really going to be superstar athletes, but it sure is fun to run around or engage in physical activity. It is getting everybody to understand that you don't need to be number one, that it's just the doing.

What role does mental health play in overall health among youth and particularly young girls?

Mental health is being able to see different options. The broader the variety of options you can see, the better your mental health will be, and if they include healthy activities  that are actually healthy for your body as well, that connection between your mind and your body will stay stronger.

You have also done extensive research on vaping and tobacco use among young people. What changes do you see between tobacco use and vaping and gender?

Historically boys abuse tobacco more, but that is disappearing. Those gender gaps are disappearing. As we've had more shifts in social norms to more equality, girls are also vaping more.

So, over time, we see, unfortunately, more girls or women doing these things. For women, obviously, you have pregnancy on top of that, and you don't want to be using nicotine when you're pregnant, which is what many young women are looking toward. You want all that stuff –that nicotine-- out of your system before you become pregnant.

However, if you end up stuck as a nicotine user, it does have long-term consequences for your body, and if you’re going to be the one having the babies, we know that smoking is terrible in that regard.