By Tonya Jameson
Inside the cafeteria at Pleasant Hill Baptist Church in the Cherry neighborhood, about a dozen ladies curled dumbbells while lunging to contemporary gospel music.
Groans bounced off the wall, but the women kept working during the weekly, Tuesday evening dance exercise class. Throughout Charlotte, churches offer fitness classes as part of an effort to combat chronic diseases that plague African-American communities.
Churches have long been at the forefront of critical battles in the African-American community. Today’s latest battlefield is the kitchen table.
“Anything that the church can do around diet and exercise, or anything else they can do that can be stress relievers, that’s vitally important,” said Pastor Ricky Woods of First Baptist Church West, which hosts a popular Friday fitness class. “We have far too many of our people who die prematurely because of hypertension, diabetes and stroke.”
Church health ministries now have fitness and nutrition components. Exercise ranges from on-site gyms to dance classes to health fairs.
Pleasant Hill started its health and wellness ministry in 2004. One of the congregants cut down the “smoking tree,” where everyone once gathered to smoke outside. The campus became 100 percent smoke-free.
The church worked with the Cabarrus County Health Alliance to train congregants to be fitness trainers. The trained congregants lead group exercise classes at the church. The alliance also provided dumbbells, stability balls, treadmills, steppers and other equipment for the church’s fitness center.
“We’ve helped people who have been on blood pressure medicine get off medicine,”
said Edna Shearer. “It’s really been a big help.”
Pleasant offers strength and cardio class taught by a YMCA personal trainer. There’s also a seniors exercise class. There are about 25 people who attend the program. The church also offers nutrition classes every two months, with topics ranging from vitamins to herbal remedy alternatives.
Pleasant Hill is one example of a church partnering with a government agency. First Baptist West is another example. First Baptist West is one of more than a dozen Charlotte-area churches participating in the Village HeartBEAT program, which is sponsored by the Mecklenburg County Health Department. Village HeartBEAT participants take advantage of free health classes, walks, nutrition classes, health screenings and more.
Most church wellness programming is open to non-church members. Friendship Baptist Church has an expansive program that ranges from on-site fitness programming to walk teams that participate in citywide races.
“The church is such a trusted source. There’s so much peer support,” said Jennifer West, program manager of the Cabarrus County Health Alliance. “Folks are set up for more support that way. When we have pastors and churches leadership on-board, members are more likely to participate.”
Other churches simply do their own thing. They have fitness rooms and group exercise classes to help their congregants get healthy.
Scripture says the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, which makes churches a good place to battle health conditions. Unlike a gym, the church is a place where people are comfortable. Plus, the church is a place where people are already involved in other activities.
Woods added: “Anytime you can be in a group environment with other people that encourage you and hold you accountable, it improves the likelihood of you staying with it and succeeding.”
Considering the dire stats related to African-Americans and health, we need churches to succeed now more than ever.