Florida State University Center Helps Black Churches Focus on Heart Health

Celebrate New Life Tabernacle in Tallahassee joined forces with the Healthy Hearts Program last year.
(Photo: Tony Leavell.)

As the nation recognizes American Heart Month this February, Florida State University’s Center on Better Health and Life for Underserved Populations has successfully helped 36 black churches in Leon and Gadsden counties set a foundation for healthier living.

Penny Ralston is the center’s director and dean emeritus of FSU’s College of Human Sciences. She and her research team received multiple grants from the National Institutes of Health beginning in 2008 to determine how effective a church-based health program would be in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

“It’s called community-based participatory research,” Ralston said. “It’s a process where the community not only has input on what you do, but also actually leads what you do.”

They received a subsequent grant in 2013 that ends this month. Although Ralston and her colleagues continue to comb through the data, they can already celebrate positive outcomes that include significant increases in eating fruits and vegetables as well as overall cardiovascular disease knowledge and significant decreases in systolic blood pressure.

“What’s exciting for me is to hear the testimonies of people who’ve made major changes,” Ralston said. “I had one pastor say ‘When this all started I really didn’t care about my health, but this program has been a miracle for me. This was my miracle.’”

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death among Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States. However, African-Americans are reported to be more impacted by stroke and heart disease than any other group in the United States.

For centuries, the black church has been the hub of the African-American community — a place for fellowship, guidance and restoration.

“There is this sense of community, of family, and then you also have the spiritual aspect,” Ralston said. “We worked with Christian churches, but even across religions there is importance in taking care of yourself. I think that’s a key spiritual principle. In Christian churches, we use biblical scripture because we need motivation. It’s not easy to live healthy. It requires discipline, and we need an anchor. The scriptures and pastors interpreting them can be those anchors.”

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SOURCE: Tallahassee Democrat
Kara Irby, Florida State University Communications

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