Preaching healthy diet, exercise from area pulpits

Penny Ralston, Professor, Dean Emeritus; Director, Center on Better Health and Life for Underserved Populations

A $1.4 million federal grant is helping a Florida State University-led research team partner with churches in Gadsden and Leon counties to combat the leading cause of death for African-American men and women — cardiovascular disease.

Funded by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, the three-year grant establishes the Health for Hearts United Leadership Institute (HHU Lead Project).

The project takes advantage of the strong support structures inherent in African-American churches to integrate proven health intervention strategies into church environments and the daily lives of their members.

“Cardiovascular disease is a major health issue for African-Americans, especially in the South,” said Professor Penny Ralston, the HHU Lead Project principal investigator and dean emeritus of FSU’s College of Human Sciences. “The strong churches we have in our area represent the perfect opportunity to engage faith communities and promote healthier lifestyles through a supportive and comfortable environment.”

Through the HHU Lead Project, the research team and six host churches will work with 32 other churches in Gadsden and Leon counties to engage church members in healthy lifestyle practices such as eating healthy foods, especially fruits and vegetables, participating in physical activity on a regular basis, reducing stress and taking charge of their health.

The six host churches all are in Florida. They are Antioch Missionary Baptist Church and St. James AME Church in Quincy; New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church and Old Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church in Havana; and Greater Mt. Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church and Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee.

Project collaborators on the project at Florida State are Jasminka Ilich-Ernst, the Hazel Stiebeling Professor of Nutrition in the Department of Nutrition, Food and Exercise Sciences, and Iris Young-Clark, assistant director of FSU’s Center on Better Health and Life for Underserved Populations.

Other partners are Arrie M. Battle, Mother Care Network Inc.; Kandauda (K.A.S.) Wickrama, University of Georgia; Cynthia M. Harris, Florida A&M University; Catherine Coccia, Florida International University; and Jennifer L. Lemacks, University of Southern Mississippi.

Ralston, who also is director of the Center on Better Health and Life for Underserved Populations, worked with these same six churches in a previous five-year NIH grant to develop the initial 18-month Health for Hearts United intervention, which integrated healthy lifestyle practices in the participating churches.

That study tracked approximately 250 men and women age 45 and older who attended the six churches over a period of 24 months with four data collection phases. Preliminary outcomes of the project showed that over the study period, many of the participants maintained an increase in fruit/vegetable servings, a decrease in fat consumption, an increase in physical activity, improvements in cholesterol levels, and a decrease in waist and waist/hip ratio circumferences.

“This project has made a tremendous difference in our congregation. We’ve learned to focus more on eating healthier and eating the right kinds of food,” said the Rev. Lee Plummer, pastor of St. James AME Church in Quincy.

“Prior to this health initiative, we were not really focused on healthy habits that would reduce heart diseases. Scripture tells us, ‘For the lack of knowledge my people perish,'” Plummer said. “Since becoming a part of the project, we’ve learned much about heart diseases, the risk factors, and what to do to prevent heart diseases. As we take better care of our bodies, we are taking better care of the Temple of God.”

Under the new grant, the research team plans to work with the host churches to increase the reach of the HHU Leadership Institute by bringing more churches and church members into the program, ultimately sustaining the Leadership Institute on an ongoing basis to improve the cardiovascular health of African-Americans in the target counties and in other areas of North Florida.

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death for African-American men and women. National data show that African-Americans have higher illness rates and higher death rates than their Caucasian counterparts for both heart disease and stroke.

The state of Florida is included in what is known as the “stroke belt” because of its higher-than-average incidence of stroke among African-American residents.

“We know that healthy lifestyle changes are an effective way to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, but making those changes are difficult for all of us,” Ralston said. “Our churches, through the HHU Lead Project, will provide the knowledge, support and encouragement for members to make lasting improvements in their lives.”