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As a captain on her church’s Village HeartBEAT team, Sheila Harvey use to enjoy exercising at a local YMCA alongside others from her church. Then Covid-19 arrived, and suddenly Mecklenburg County’s award-winning health-awareness program was forced to pivot.

No longer could participants meet in person, so Harvey and her Friendship Missionary Baptist Church teammates turned to technology.

They held exercise classes via Facebook Live. They met on Zoom and sent text messages to stay connected. Other churches in the Village HeartBEAT program adopted similar moves.

Now a year later, as Village HeartBEAT is preparing to launch its 9th season this spring, technology is set to play a central role in how the program will evolve.

The program will roll out an app this spring that will let participants monitor and track their exercise and eating habits while staying connected with one another digitally.

Frank Parker, retired director of instructional technology at Johnson C. Smith University and a Village HeartBEAT consultant, said the program had been looking at ways to better use technology even before Covid arrived.

“The pandemic just pushed us to get on with it,” he said.

The app was developed by James Walker, CEO of Informative Technologies Inc., which also helps Village HeartBEAT with data collecting.

With the app, county health officials will be able to do things like create virtual challenges — a 5k “race,” for example, where the app records each participant’s steps as they walk, work or go about their daily lives. (The first to reach 6,561 steps would win the 5k “race.”)

Walker said the goal is to make the health department’s outreach more relevant, especially during the pandemic, when Village HeartBEAT participants may feel disconnected.

“It’s fun to compete, but it’s valuable to really understand that if you can manage your steps, calories burned, and the amount of water and vegetables you consume, you’re able to take ownership and have some sense of control,” he said.

Walker said his company plans to provide fitness trackers and technical support to participants who don’t have access to smart phones or other technology.

Fighting chronic health conditions

Founded in 2014, Village HeartBEAT works with local churches and faith-based groups to reduce the occurrence of chronic health conditions that disproportionately impact Black and Hispanic populations.

Last season, about 50 churches were part of the effort.

Its signature program is a 16-week challenge, where participating churches field teams with at least 10 people in a competition to adopt healthy lifestyle changes.

Village HeartBEAT organizers set a goal last season for each participant to lose at least eight pounds over the 16-week challenge. Of the 127 people who entered the challenge, 88 reported meeting that goal. (One person lost about 80 pounds, and a husband-wife duo each lost about 40 pounds.)

Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, Village HearBEAT found ways to screen its participants for chronic health conditions. Photo: QCity Metro

Weight loss is not the only factor that drives the annual competition. Participants also pledge to exercise, cook and eat healthy meals, stop smoking and adopt lifestyle changes to reduce chronic diseases.

At season’s end, at least seven Village HeartBEAT participants who were diabetic when the season started reported seeing their blood-glucose levels drop to normal ranges. Another 39 people who had been pre-diabetic reported seeing their blood-glucose return to normal levels.

Cheryl Emanuel, the program’s founder and a senior health manager at Mecklenburg Public Health, said the numbers did not surprise her.

“We always knew that we had a certain number of people who are fully engaged with Village HeartBEAT,” she said. “When they come into the challenge, they are very serious about doing something different to improve their health.”

Now more than ever

A basic tenet of Village HeartBEAT is the belief that fitness goals are easier to achieve when people work with others in face-to-face camaraderie – a difficult proposition in this era of face masks and social distancing.

Still, Village HeartBEAT organizers and the member churches were determined to see the program not just survive but thrive.

In fact, stakeholders agreed that the program was needed more than ever. Statistics show that Black and Latino populations, because of underlying health disparities, are disproportionately impacted by Covid-19.

Larry and Barbara Costen of Rockwell AME Zion Church compare biometric results at a session sponsored by VillageHeartBEAT. Photo: QCity Metro

The Rev. Jordan Boyd Jr. of Rockwell AME Zion Church said the pandemic has shown the value of Village HeartBEAT. For example, the network of churches was able to provide food for those in need, educate members about the importance of getting tested for COVID-19, and is providing educational outreach about Covid vaccines. Some VillageHeartBEAT churches have even pop-up clinics where church members and community residents could get vaccinated without appointments.

“We have oftentimes discussed what the pandemic would have been like had Village HeartBEAT’s network of faith-based organizations not been together,” Boyd said. “Because we were in place already, by God’s grace, we were able to quickly mobilize and move in a unified way to address some of the concerns.”

Staying fit

Harvey joined Village HeartBEAT three years ago. She was inspired, in part, by a desire to stay fit and healthy; as she ages she fears becoming a burden for family members or other caregivers.

“You’ve got to be able to help others help you,” she says.

Pre-pandemic, Harvey worked out five days a week. Once Covid hit, she worked out more often — six days a week — because she began exercising at home.  

After Village HeartBEAT’s 2020 competition ended, Harvey kept in touch with her team. They met on Zoom, with members taking turns presenting information on various topics, such as the importance of walking. She also continued to text the group.

“Once you’re on my list, you’re always on it,” she says.

Harvey credits the camaraderie that the Village HeartBEAT program creates with keeping people engaged and on track with their fitness goals.

“The group works,” she says. “There is a sense of community that really brings you all together.”

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