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Weighing in on the obesity epidemic

Obesity continues to escalate in the United States. About one-third of adults (33.8 percent) are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A 2010 study that appeared in Obesity, the journal of the Obesity Society, puts the obesity rate of United Methodist clergy ages 35-64 at close to 40 percent.

If your church hasn't addressed this issue, it's time you do. Considering our bodies are gifts from God, it makes sense for churches to become involved in teaching about healthy lifestyles. Here are some fun ideas to improve your congregation's health and communicate the benefits of a healthy lifestyle:

1. Host a weight-loss challenge. The United Methodist Church is on a mission to improve clergy health in response to research that shows United Methodist pastors' health is below average. This activity should place your pastor at the forefront. Having your pastor lead the charge also puts a strong leader in front of your congregation. He or she can make the connection between physical and spiritual health — a great motivator. This also offers an excellent blogging opportunity for your pastor and enables church members to participate with encouraging online feedback and stories of their own weight-loss struggles and successes.

Consider expanding this initiative to include the entire community. It should be easy to find sponsors and partners. Target hospitals, local grocery chains, health clubs and other organizations that have a stake in promoting healthy eating and exercise. Host some activities at your church (such as healthy-cooking demonstrations or exercise classes) as a way to market your church to potential members.

You also can use video conferencing and social media tools (such as a Facebook page) to challenge another United Methodist congregation in a nearby community or another state. Live weigh-ins can be broadcast from one church to the other. In addition, use this time for your churches to swap ideas and tips on maintaining a healthy lifestyle. At the end of the challenge, the "winning" church can receive a token prize, such as a small donation for the next church party or T-shirts paid for by the other church.

2. Incorporate healthy activities. Rotate the sugar-laden, after-service coffee hour with an after-service walking hour (every other week) and provide bottled water and fresh fruit and veggies. In case of inclement weather, hold the walk on a designated path inside the church or in a gym or other large room. For more articles, studies, news and resources on health, check out The General Board of Pension and Health Benefits' Center for Health

3. Offer cooking classes for adults and children. In children's classes during Sunday school, kids can learn to cook healthy food related to biblical lessons or stories. For example, bread is a staple of the Old Testament, so why not use this as an opportunity to make whole-grain or multi-grain bread? Then, brush it with olive oil, another omnipresent Old Testament food. There are also Passover foods, fruits, stews, crackers and other staples mentioned in the Bible. Explaining how our ancestors' diets were much less processed — and, therefore, much healthier — should send a strong message.

To spice things up, communicate with United Methodist churches overseas and set up live cooking demonstrations of native dishes (healthy, of course!) using online streaming video. Reciprocate with your own demonstration.

4. Develop a community garden. At Second Grace United Methodist Church in Detroit, church members involved children and teens in a high-poverty/high-unemployment area in building a garden and holding a farmer's market during harvest times. A garden provides fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as opportunities for exercise, a crucial element in the fight against childhood obesity.

You also can use a community garden as an opportunity to teach healthy eating. Post a vegetable or fruit of the month on your blog or Facebook page and encourage members to post their favorite recipes using this fruit or vegetable. You also can include information on the month's pick in your bulletin or newsletter with some key facts and a recipe or two.

5. Provide healthy church programming. When offering food at church events and planning programs, make sure to include healthy options. This is an excellent time to focus on family fitness. Schedule a hike through your local park and talk about the value of exercising as a family or invite a dietician from your local hospital to speak to families about the importance of a proper diet and exercise.