Church-based Health Program Wins National Praise

October 25, 2005

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has awarded the Healthy Living Program its annual Innovation in Prevention Award. The Healthy Living Program is administered by the Center for Rochester’s Health, a joint program of the University of Rochester Medical Center and the Monroe County Department of Public Health.

“This award is particularly gratifying because it recognizes an innovative approach to prevention that has been embraced by Rochester’s faith community,” said Nancy M. Bennett, M.D., director of the Center for Rochester’s Health. “Judging from the tremendous growth and success of the Healthy Living Program, we knew that we had created something special and this award validates what we have long believed; this program can serve as a national model for community-based preventative services.  It also points to the power of partnerships to develop innovative and successful programs.”

The Healthy Living Program, which is directed by the Center for Lifetime Wellness, represents a unique grassroots approach to addressing common health problems. The program – which was developed with broad input from physicians, health systems, health insurance companies, the county government, and non-profit and community-based organizations – builds upon existing support networks within the African-American faith community to identify and recruit participants and host sessions. The program targets adults who are either suffering from or are at risk of developing chronic conditions. Nine out of 10 participants have a body mass index greater than 30 – the level which the Surgeon General considers obese – and only 10 percent meet guidelines for aerobic activity, placing them at risk for conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension. The 12-week program includes health screenings and assessment, health education, counseling, and physical activity. 

Participating pastors and their congregations not only get the word out through their church networks, they also provide the encouragement and support necessary to prompt individuals to enroll and stick with the program. The program has served more than 1,000 participants at 50 separate church-based sites throughout the two quadrants of the city with the greatest health disparities. Ninety-three percent of participants in the program are African-American.

“When we looked closely at why other similar outreach efforts had failed we realized that the problem was not with the message, but rather how it was delivered,” said Carol Podgorski, M.S., Ph.D., executive director of the Center for Lifetime Wellness. “The Healthy Living Program introduces participants to physical activity and health education in ways that are safe and non-threatening and in a setting that is familiar and comfortable to them.” 

In 2002, the Center for Lifetime Wellness launched the Train to Sustain program which trains individuals, many of whom participated the Healthy Living Program, to become nationally certified group exercise teachers. Graduates from this program have gone on to become instructors in the Healthy Living Program. 

The HHS’s Innovation in Prevention Awards were created three years ago as part the President’s HealthierUS initiative and HHS’s continuing focus on preventing chronic disease and improving Americans’ lives. The awards highlight businesses and organizations that are leading efforts to promote healthier lifestyles in seven different areas. The Center for Rochester’s Health won in the Faith-based and Community-based category. The award was presented at a ceremony in Washington on Oct. 24.  Two out of 10 of the national awards will be presented to Rochester-based programs: Excellus Blue Cross Blue Shield will be recognized at the event for its Step Up program

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Mark Michaud
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