A strategic joint-use partnership between Mt. Erie Baptist Church in Southeast San Diego and the nearby Martin Luther King (MLK) Jr. Recreation Center is allowing church members to combine worship and physical activity.

Several church members visit the MLK center several nights a week for the ongoing program GospelCise, workout sessions that invite participants to “sweat, praise and worship in the spirit of the Lord.”

The classes include Cardio Fit, Ya Zoom Praise/Worship, Total Body Workout/Sculpt, Kickboxing and Intro to be Fit. The strategic joint-use partnership is supported by UC San Diego – Center for Community Health’s Faith-Based Wellness Program, which is funded by the California Department of Public Health’s Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention (NEOP) branch, through the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency.

The Faith-Based Wellness Program works with and supports underserved communities to lead healthy and active lives by working with faith-based organizations in underserved communities across San Diego County. One of the Faith-Based Wellness Program’s approaches to increasing daily physical activity among low-income communities in San Diego County is to increase access to free and low-cost physical activity opportunities and to continue to make connections with faith-based organizations to participate in joint-use agreements at local recreation centers. The Faith-Based Wellness Program has promoted this innovative movement by linking local churches to the free physical activity classes, providing educational material to support the work, and encouraging other churches to initiate joint-use agreements at recreation centers in their communities. This new partnership and agreement means that participants can take the physical activity classes for free. In an effort to increase physical activity, recreational facilities agree to open for church use.

“It’s been going well, and we’ve had an excellent turnout,” said Trena Bennett, Center Director at Lopez Ridge Community Park, and founder of GospelCise Ministries, who also leads the Monday night Cardio Fit class. “They like the music, they like the atmosphere. This is a unique program.”

In California, an estimated 60 percent of adults are overweight, with 25 percent being obese, according to the California Department of Public Health.  More than 73 percent of African-Americans are overweight with almost 37 percent reaching obesity. Obesity can contribute to chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and certain types of cancer.  African-Americans suffer disproportionately from these conditions.

African-American women, who make up most of the MLK classes, are often resistant to exercise, the county health department says, especially during the work day for fear of sweating and ruining their hairstyles. This is why many communities now have physical education programs for African-American women, teaching them how to maintain their hairstyles while also getting a good amount of exercise. The California Department of Public Health recommends engaging in moderate to vigorous physical activity for at least 30 minutes daily to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.

The joint-use agreement between Mt. Erie Baptist Church and the MLK Center means that participants can take the class for free.

“Joint-use agreements like this are important because they provide free to low-cost physical activity opportunities to both congregation and community members,” said Lakeysha Sowumni, Faith-Based Wellness Program Manager at UC San Diego – Center for Community Health. “These types of agreements between organizations are also essential to the health of congregation members and community residents.”

The community response has been strong. “I attend the GospelCise ministries workout group at MLK Recreation Center,” said Regina Vasquez. “I am greatly blessed I have found an amazing ministry and group of women that I can fellowship with and become healthy with. It’s so important to me to be active and healthy from the inside-out, as I am married and a young mother of three. An outlet is much needed. Most importantly, we share the word of God lifting ourselves and each other up. I am thankful this is all provided at no cost, and what we receive is priceless.”

Class participant Lizbeth Flores said the GospelCise program allowed her a new start for her health.

“This program is important for me because it is a free program with which I began a healthy change,” Flores said. “This program has changed my life, I am more active, happier, healthier, and I am more involved in my community. I am so thankful this program is available for low-income women. Women who are busy homemakers and caregivers now have a chance to spend time taking care of themselves. It gives women a chance to feel empowered and confident, and a chance to strengthen their relationship with God, and to be able to do so in a safe space with wonderful people.”

Trena Bennett says her faith inspires her to lead the program. “Since I began studying the word of God, I think more positively about the way we can make change in our community,” she said. “I’m looking forward to connecting with other churches and getting people moving around for their health.”

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