Health Smart program receives grant to combat obesity statewide
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A University of Florida researcher has received $75,000 from the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida Foundation to expand a program geared toward improving the health of Florida’s African American population, who face increased risks for heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes.
The statewide African Methodist Episcopal Health-Smart Church Model Program is designed to combat obesity in families, children and adults by promoting healthy eating and physical activity. The program, originally tested at churches in Gainesville, Fla., and Bronx, N.Y., will slowly expand across Florida in the next two years.
During the trial run of the program in the Bronx and Gainesville, participants exhibited a decrease in body mass index and blood pressure and an increase in health-promoting behaviors, signaling an overall increase in health, said Carolyn M. Tucker, Ph.D., the program’s principal investigator.
The 11th Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church was chosen as the program’s collaborator because it has many well-organized, closely connected churches that strive to promote spiritual, physical and emotional health, Tucker said. There are more than 400 African Methodist Episcopal, or AME, churches in Florida.
“There’s an opportunity to impact a lot of people by operating through the church and having church members help implement the program,” said Tucker, the Florida Blue Endowed Chair in Health Disparities Research at UF, the Richard and Thelma C. Barney Term Professor and director of the UF Health Disparities Research and Intervention Program in the College of Medicine.
In Florida, African Americans have disproportionately higher rates of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer, said Penny Ralston, M.Ed., Ph.D., director of the Florida State University Center on Better Health and Life for Undeserved Populations and a co-investigator on the project.
Death rates for heart disease are 23 percent higher among African Americans than among whites and death rates for stroke are 31 percent higher, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition, African American adults are twice as likely as white adults to have diabetes.
“With church-based health, we have the opportunity to work with church leaders to modify risk factors for chronic disease, such as obesity and hypertension, through promoting healthy lifestyles, including diet and physical activity,” Ralston said.
The program will begin with five AME churches in July.
During the first year of the program, Tucker, her co-investigators and other research team members will work with the pastors and three members at each church. The pastor and church members will act as participants and help the investigators adjust the program for each church community. More than 100 churches will be added during the second year of the program.
After the program is implemented, participating church members will act as health empowerment coaches to empower their fellow church members to engage in health-promoting behaviors.
“Churches understand that they can play a major role in preventing and overcoming obesity and related health problems in their communities, and thus we are trying to empower these churches with the tools to assume this important role,” Tucker said.
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