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Praise the Lord and Pass the Broccoli

Pastors in minority churches are preaching good health

SUNDAY, Oct. 27, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- It's preached in the pulpit and takes place among the pews, but the focus is not so much on saving your soul as it is on lowering your body fat, blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar.

Health disparities among racial and ethnic groups in the United States are soaring, with cancer, diabetes, stroke and heart disease rates all higher among blacks and Hispanics than among whites. While health officials grapple with how best to close the gaps, local communities have taken matters into their own hands.

One way is through church-based health programs that include everything from gospel aerobics to smoking cessation classes.

Jeanette Jordan, a Charleston, S.C.-based dietician and a spokeswoman for the American Diabetes Association, is working with the African-Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina to bring health programs to its 170,000 members. The program has produced The Good Health Cookbook and organized walking clubs, exercise classes and a "Health Minute" in churches. Jordan also published a "faith-based weight-management guide" called Be Good To Yourself, which includes sample menus and tips on how to modify your favorite recipes to reduce calories and fat.

Jordan says that about half the participants have decreased the amount of fat they were eating, although fruit and vegetable intake has remained flat, with only 13 percent of churchgoers eating five servings a day.

The Centers for Healthy Hearts & Souls in Pittsburgh also works through black churches to provide adult fitness and nutrition programs. "We've had 1,200 women who have participated in our fitness program, and I believe that somewhere around 75 percent have decreased their waist-hip ratio," says Mattie Woods, the centers' executive director. Right now, eight churches are involved in the program. Another 45 are on the waiting list.

Woods says the organization's success comes largely from the fact that community members themselves design and implement the programs, rather than an outsider who swoops in to impose his or her views.

"The actual community decides on what programs they feel are necessary for the community," Woods says. "There is an untapped resource of experts already in the community. It's from the inside. They say what works. They decide." One local fitness expert who had taught jazzercise for more than 10 years choreographed an exercise program to go with gospel music.

"The advantage is that more than half of the African-American population is spiritually rooted -- to church, to the community," says Jack Manson, an exercise physiologist and personal trainer at the Elmwood Fitness Center, part of the Ochsner Clinic Foundation in New Orleans. "The preachers ultimately have a great influence over their flock."

If the pastor places an emphasis on fitness, so will the congregation. "With something like gospel aerobics, you've got pastors supporting and encouraging this physical component of your life, which ultimately results in better health and a cleaner mind and spirit," says Manson, whose own church has an exercise program.

There is a downside to programs like gospel aerobics, Manson points out. For one thing, you're getting all different levels in one group, meaning that some women will be - literally - dancing circles around the others. You also may not have an organized way to keep track of people's progress, something that's essential to motivation and success.

Jordan says other obstacles may be unique to the black community. "The average African-American woman doesn't want to wear a size five or six, and three is out of the question," she says. "Even when they're at their correct weight, they want to gain weight to have bigger hips or larger breasts. Men wanted something they could hold on to."

In Africa, Jordan says, women stuffed their clothing with pillows because if you had voluptuous hips it meant you were more fertile. "Women think, 'If I look good, then that means I'm healthy,'" Jordan says. "That's another challenge, convincing them that looking good and being healthy are not the same thing."

What To Do

For more information and resources on minority health, visit the Office of Minority Health at the Department of Health and Human Services, the Minority Health Network or the CDC's Minority Health Program.

SOURCES: Mattie Woods, executive director, Centers for Healthy Hearts & Souls, Pittsburgh; Jack Manson, M.S., exercise physiologist and personal trainer, Elmwood Fitness Center, Ochsner Clinic Foundation, New Orleans; Jeanette Jordan, R.D., dietician and spokeswoman, American Diabetes Association
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