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Walking in Health with Parish Nurses

Heidi Christensen, Associate Director for Community Engagement at the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, describes how parish nurses are supporting the goals of Let's Move.

Across the country, parish nurses are helping congregations walk in health towards a more active lifestyle.  Parish nurses, or Faith Community Nurses, are health experts who work within specific congregations to provide the tools, resources, and support necessary to make healthy decisions and stay active.  In their capacity as health counselors, advocates, educators, and providers of spiritual care, they are on the frontlines of congregational health, working with church members to address healing of the body, mind and spirit.

Poised to guide parishioners toward more physical activity, parish nurses have responded to the First Lady’s Let’s Move! challenge to walk 3 million miles as part of her initiative to reverse the trend of childhood obesity within a generation. Parish nurses are leading energized, creative community walking programs across the country. The Rev. Dr. Deborah Patterson, Executive Director of the International Parish Nurse Resource Center says, “When a parish nurse is leading a walking program, the average number of miles walked per congregation increases dramatically!” 

“All it takes is a little bit of organization to get people excited about physical activity” noted Rebekah Seymour, parish nurse of First Baptist Church in Nederland, Texas.  Rebekah, with the help of a team of volunteers, planned and carried out a church-wide walking program called “Walk Across Texas” with Texas-sized success.    After constructing a giant map of Texas on which individuals, groups, and families could track their weekly progress and offering prizes for those who crossed the state first, the community of First Baptist walked over 225,000 miles.    Not only did the walking adventure encourage physical activity, it nurtured community and inspired congregants to get up, get moving and adopt healthy habits that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.

At Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in Brentwood, Missouri, parish nurse Nancy Merila with her congregation conducted a virtual “Walk to Bethlehem.” Miles were counted, with the use of inexpensive pedometers, by using 15 to 30 minute increments. Participants marked their miles on a big world map pinned to the community wall and Merila enhanced the experience by stamping passports for the countries the congregation virtually “walked” through each week and provided a travelogue of educational facts and images about each country.   She added inspirational prayer cards and bible verses to encourage reflection and inspiration during daily walks as, she notes, “It’s impossible to address health issues without taking a holistic approach. If people aren’t physically, emotionally and spiritually engaged, they will never make lasting changes in their lives.” 

These are only a few of the many examples of parish nurses guiding congregations in the healthy practices that will support the community they serve in becoming a place of health and well-being.  “People like taking part in physical activity, but often times they don’t know where to start.  By making walking programs fun and educationally and spiritually fulfilling, we can really provide a sustainable solution to the problem of obesity,” says Nancy Merila.

Read more about the great activities faith-based and neighborhood organizations are leading across the country to get people moving. To learn more about the Let’s Move Faith and Communities initiative or share your success story, email us at partnerships@hhs.govor call (202) 358-3595.

Heidi Christensen is the Associate Director for Community Engagement at the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services