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The University of Texas at San Antonio Online Magazine

religious inspiration

Religious Inspiration

Churchgoers Take A Leap Of Faith To A Healthier Lifestyle

America’s obesity epidemic cannot be fixed with crash diets. Most experts agree that families need to make lifestyle changes, meaning fewer fast-food-meals and sugary soft drinks and more fruit, vegetables and water. It also means less television and computer time and more walking outdoors.

That message has been in the news for years, yet obesity and its complications remain a major public health concern. The problem is especially alarming in Hispanic communities, where as many as 45 percent of children are overweight or obese. San Antonio doctors are finding children as young as 10 with metabolic irregularities, diabetes and early signs of heart disease.

Lifestyle changes are tough to make, but the stakes are high. Children who develop diabetes at a young age will spend a lifetime coping with an illness that can lead to complications like kidney disease, heart attacks, blindness and amputations.

"To take on obesity, you have to motivate the whole family, the whole community, to reach the children," said Meizi He, UTSA associate professor of health and kinesiology. She is testing a novel approach to reverse and prevent obesity in the Hispanic community by utilizing that community’s deep religious faith.

"By going to the churches, we reach the parents, we reach the grandparents, we reach the whole community," she said.

Both He and Deborah Parra-Medina, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, worked with two West Side San Antonio churches last year to develop and test a new model of obesity prevention. With grant support from the San Antonio Life Sciences Institute (SALSI), they combined biblical teachings about health and stewardship with 21st century science about nutrition and fitness. The program harnessed families’ spirituality and faith to tackle the challenge of lifestyle change.

Preliminary measurements from a six–month-pilot study show encouraging results. Children and adults became more aware of the importance of good nutrition, they exercised more, ate more fruit and vegetables and fewer sugary drinks, and their abdominal fat measurements declined.

Turning to churches is not a new idea. Faith–based-organizations have long had a role in African American communities as important forums promoting social justice and political change. More recently, churches have emerged as major venues for delivering health messages in these communities as well. But there were few such efforts in Latino communities, He found, even though 90 percent of Hispanics are members of a church or faith-based group.

religious inspiration

He’s earliest steps, with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, explored ways to do this. Interviews with West Side pastors and congregation members in 2010 revealed that people did perceive a link between religious faith and health, and that they thought culturally sensitive messages could be effective in combating childhood obesity. Next, using funding from SALSI, He and colleagues worked with two other churches to develop and test Building a Health Temple, an integrated program of Bible-based messages about health. The program combines these messages with exercise sessions for children and adults, health screenings, and nutrition and cooking classes.

"The Bible calls upon us to take care of ourselves and our bodies because we are temples of the Holy Spirit," said Central Church of God pastor Jose Montanez, head of one of the participating congregations in last year’s pilot project. "If we are overeating, not watching our weight and not exercising, we are not being good stewards of the gift that God has given us."

His West Side church is in an area marked by high rates of poverty. He estimated that one-third of his 350-member congregation is overweight or obese.

The pastors who participated each appointed a steering committee to work with the researchers in developing messages specifically tailored to their congregations. Together they developed themes covering two sermons and six lessons for both the children’s Sunday School and adults’ Bible study sessions. These were then integrated with a health improvement program that began with measurements that included weight, waist circumference and body mass index, also called BMI, a clinical measure calculated using height and weight.

Families received lessons from the researchers about nutrition, health and meal preparation, and members joined church-based physical activity sessions. Participants also got pedometers to keep track of their everyday walking totals, which proved a popular and easy way to motivate people to walk more, the researchers said.

"If we are overeating, not watching our weight and not exercising, we are not being good stewards of the gift that God has given us."

—Rev. Jose Montanez, pastor of the central church of god

"It was a very well-rounded program," Montanez said. "It was a spiritually based approach and it was very well received."

Study participants reported success. Overall, they became more knowledgeable about health issues and more conscious of the longterm effects of a bad diet and sedentary lifestyle.

There were not dramatic changes in weight or BMI, but He’s team found significant decreases in waist circumference, an important clinical measure that correlates with reduced heart disease risk and general good health. The formal program lasted six months and researchers measured lifestyle changes to evaluate the program’s impact. He was pleased with the findings and hopes to convince another local philanthropic group to support expansion of the program to other Hispanic churches.

"They learned the key messages that incorporated biblical messages and health," said He. "We saw positive changes and now we hope we can take that program to more people."

A devout Christian herself, He found the project to be a way of implementing her own faith and its teachings about helping others.

"This is my passion—preventive programs to help people," she said. "I have it in my heart to do this. I can’t do just pure research. I want to help people live healthier lives."

–Cindy Tumiel

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