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Updated 2:00 PM November 8, 2006




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Churches aim to help bodies as well as souls

A new program aimed at helping African Americans improve their diet and fitness is taking advantage of a higher power.

The church plays an important role in the social lives of many African Americans. That's why U-M researchers are targeting Black churches to help bring a message of healthier lifestyle choices to their congregations.

The program, called Body & Soul, is a nationwide, evidence-based health and wellness program tailored for African American churches. Researchers work with church leaders to provide educational materials and resources for encouraging members to eat more fruits and vegetables and to be more active.

The U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center piloted the program in 2005 with five churches from the Ypsilanti-Ann Arbor area. This month, three more churches signed on.

Body & Soul is supported by four essential pillars: pastoral involvement, educational activities to raise awareness about healthy living, a worship environment that promotes healthy eating and peer counseling.

"As the church's spiritual and organizational leader, the pastor's support of the program is vital," says the program's coordinator, Natasha Blakeney Wilson, minority outreach coordinator at the cancer center. "From there, it trickles down through church functions and events. If you can surround the congregation with healthy choices at these events, it shows how simple it is to make eating more fruits and vegetables part of their daily lives,"

Participating churches have found success in replacing traditional coffee and doughnuts after service with Smoothie Sundays, featuring fresh fruit. Other social events substitute healthier food choices that emphasize fruits and vegetables over unhealthy fried, sugary and processed favorites.

Body & Soul provides informational workshops to help churches strengthen their health ministry groups to implement the program. Peer counselors from within the church are trained to offer one-on-one support.

A healthy diet and active lifestyle may help lower the risk of diseases such as high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, heart disease and some types of cancer. The National Cancer Institute recommends eating five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

Initial studies conducted by Kenneth Resnicow, a cancer center member and professor of health behavior and health education at the School of Public Health, showed that after interventional efforts and support from peer counselors at local churches, participants increased their fruit and vegetable intake by one serving per day, from an average of three to four servings.

Based on outcomes from these prior research studies, Body & Soul was launched across the country in partnership with the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and two major academic institutions: the University of North Carolina and U-M.

The centralized training session for churches new to the program took place at Messias Temple in Ypsilanti, where Harry Grayson serves as pastor. Three churches from Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Belleville participated.

Working as a team to promote Body & Soul throughout southeast Michigan, the cancer center and the American Cancer Society received this year's Michigan Cancer Consortium Spirit of Collaboration Honorable Mention Award.

For more information about Body & Soul call 647-5780.

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