To Reach the Community, Health Advocates Look to the Pulpit

January 25, 2012 at 1:38 PM

By Jeanmarie Evelly

Editor’s Note: Every Wednesday, Breaking Bronx features a health-related story, event or tidbit as part of an online expansion of our Be Healthy! column.

Pastor Liz Townes-Shuler, of Jubilee Baptist Church, gets her blood pressure checked. The church participated in a months-long hypertension workshop with Montefiore Medical Center. (Photo courtesy of Montefiore’s Care Management Company)

Your body is a temple.

That biblical message is one that a number of Bronx-based health and fitness groups are hoping to spread to residents — by reaching them at church.

Health advocates are turning to faith-based organizations as a means of reaching the community, engaging churches and other houses of worship in programs and activities that promote nutrition, fitness, and overall healthier living.

“What we found was a tremendous amount of support within the faith communities that we encountered,” said Nicole Hollingsworth, senior director of Community & Population Health at Montefiore Medical Center’s Care Management Company. “The theory was to provide education in a way that would be rooted in everyday life.”

Churches and other faith-based groups are especially effective at reinforcing a physician’s message, she said.

“You hear this information about improving your own health,” Hollingsworth said. “It’s one thing for us to say it. But if it’s your pastor that says it, that message comes across more strongly than we could do on our own.”

Montefiore has led educational workshops and health screenings at nine different Bronx churches. This fall, the hospital led a months-long program focused on the risks of hypertension and heart disease with a group of 10 women who attend Jubilee Baptist Church, on White Plains Road in Olinville. The group participated in weekly educational workshops on hypertension, medication management, weight control, healthy cooking habits. They learned how to properly read nutritional labels on food, and how to do yoga exercises to reduce stress.

“Each session was very, very informative and very well-received,” said Pastor Liz Townes-Shuler. “I think it has changed our way of not only eating and thinking, but I believe it has changed our lifestyle tremendously.”

Over the course of the program, she said, several of the women were able to lower their blood pressure readings.

Other groups are using similar methods. Bronx Health REACH, a coalition of local community-based organizations and health care providers, runs several programs under its Faith-Based Outreach Initiative, including fitness groups, diabetes support and youth nutrition. In another project, a group of researchers from University of Florida, funded by PepsiCo, launched the “Bronx Health-Smart Church Program” this fall at four different Bronx parishes, training church leaders in tactics to encourage weight loss and other positive health outcomes in their congregants.

“One element we found helpful with the faith-based groups was in their allowing us to come to into their spaces,” said Hollingsworth. “By us being able to go into the community, we think it allowed a lot of people to get a message that maybe they wouldn’t have had time for.”
Some experts say that adding a spiritual element to a health regimen increases a person’s motivation, and perhaps, chances for success. Todd Belin, a Norwood-based personal trainer, recently launched a faith-based version of his Fitness Boot Camp class, incorporating Christian music, prayer and inspirational messages into the workout, with a focus on both the body and the spirit.

“It’s a holistic approach,” he said.

The program started at a church in Manhattan and got such positive responses that he decided to start a second one in the Bronx, Belin said. The method is effective, he says, because the element of faith makes people feel connected to something larger than themselves, an excellent motivator.

“If you’re alone and you’re isolated, if you have no support and no accountability, you can’t meet your fitness goals,” he said.

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