People of Faith Pitch In to Help Americans Get Fit

Brooklyn Bennett, 4, gets active during vacation Bible school at Grace Fellowship Church in Ypsilanti, Mich. (Photo: Jeffrey Bennett)
Brooklyn Bennett, 4, gets active during vacation Bible school at Grace Fellowship Church in Ypsilanti, Mich.
(Photo: Jeffrey Bennett)

Many people of faith consider their lives a walk with God. At the Howard United Methodist Church in Howard, Pa., some folks take the idea literally. They spend 10 weeks each year wearing matching pedometers, counting their earthly steps in a friendly competition.

Pastor Craig Rose announces team and individual results from the pulpit each week, starting in mid-May. Last year, he reported that the 26 people who stuck with the program walked a total of 20,233,995 steps, or 10,117 miles.

“We have some real hard core walkers covering a lot of miles,” the proud pastor says. Some of the walkers have lost weight. Others have seen additional health benefits, he says.

Those are the kinds of results that get the attention of health experts desperate to find ways to get Americans moving. Some are now asking faith-based organizations to become major players in the nation’s uphill battle against sloth.

In April, a non-profit coalition of health organizations updated the National Physical Activity Plan. The plan, first written in 2010, spells out strategies that businesses, schools, health care providers, transportation planners, public health agencies, mass media and others can use to encourage physical activity. The 2016 version added two new key players: sports organizations and faith-based groups.

The goal is to help more Americans meet physical activity guidelines set by the federal government in 2008. Despite ongoing efforts – including First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move program for kids and a walking campaign endorsed by Surgeon General Vivek Murthy– progress has been slow. In 2014, just 21% of adults met guidelines for aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity, up from 18% on 2008, according to the government’s most recent Healthy People 2020 report.

“We’ve gotten where we are as a result of a slide that has been going on for decades,” says Russell Pate, chairman of the National Physical Activity Plan Alliance and a professor of exercise science at the University of South Carolina. “We are not going to turn that all around overnight. So what we are calling for are multiple changes in our communities and institutions that will make physical activity more accessible for more people.”

Bringing physical activity to churches – and to temples, mosques and other faith-based settings – is a natural fit, he and other experts say. For one thing, it’s already happening. Some high-profile pastors have made physical fitness part of their ministries.They include California’s Rick Warren (author of The Purpose Driven Life and co-author of The Daniel Plan health books) and Virginia’s Steve Reynolds (author of Bod4God). Some fitness programs and gyms are marketed especially to Christians and other faith groups. And GirlTrek, a walking organization for African American women, has chapters at many churches nationwide.

Meanwhile, researchers studying physical activity programs in faith-based settings have found “quite a bit of evidence that they are pretty effective,” says Melissa Bopp, an associate professor of kinesiology at Pennsylvania State University.

Some programs feature “praise aerobics,” Bible study walking breaks and other formal fitness activities. But a congregation can help encourage activity by “something as simple as putting a bike rack out front,” Bopp says.

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