Churchgoers Take A Leap Of Faith To A Healthier Lifestyle
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
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,"
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
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.
"It was a very well-rounded program,"
Montanez said. "It was a spiritually
based approach and it was very
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
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."