African-American boomers focusing on their health

'We're doing what the doctors ask,' says one motivated member of an exercise class

Gracie Bonds Staples / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution /

ATLANTA — Five days a week, Carolyn Banks rises at 5 a.m., dresses and drives 22 miles to the Beulah Baptist Church Family Life Center to work out the kinks in her joints, to rev up her heart and health.

Exercise, she says, has been a part of her daily routine since 2009, when she was diagnosed with neurosarcoidosis, a chronic inflammatory disorder, and her physical health began to decline.

“I had been completely incapacitated,” the 63-year-old retired DeKalb County, Ga., educator said after class recently. “Doctors predicted my death.”

But within a year of joining the aerobics class, she was feeling better, and the neurosarcoidosis went into full remission.

Banks became a firm believer in the benefits of exercise and good nutrition and the self-appointed spokeswoman for her church’s exercise program. She and fellow classmates work to attain optimum health.

“They are demonstrating that barriers to a healthy lifestyle can be overcome, and the benefits of regular physical activity and a healthy diet can be achieved at every stage of life,” said Leandris Liburd, associate director for minority health and health equity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

“We’re thrilled to know that they are effectively reducing their risk factors for certain diseases, managing chronic diseases and improving the overall quality of their life.”

Banks said she hopes her story motivates and inspires other African-Americans, who statistically lead reports on adverse health conditions such as high blood pressure, obesity and high cholesterol.

For instance, health officials say that 53.9 percent of black women aged 65 to 74 are considered obese compared to 38.9 percent of white women in the same age group, said Dr. Ashleigh May, a CDC epidemiologist.

“That’s a huge concern, especially since we know obesity can put people at risk for some of the leading causes of death in the United States,” said May. “Some of these include heart disease, certain cancers and stroke, as well as Type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol.”

Banks’ classmates are a mix of retired male and female baby boomers — former teachers and firefighters, city employees and media specialists who found their way to the church after becoming concerned about their health. Some are members of Beulah, but most aren’t.

All of them say the fitness classes, emotional and nutritional support they receive from classmates have helped them overcome one illness or another.

Wayne Jones, 60, a retired Delta Airlines employee from Decatur, Ga., was suffering from high blood pressure when he joined the class. And Nick Bowers, 58, a retired Atlanta fireman from Lithonia, Ga., was overweight.

Not any more.

Bowers said a friend invited him to the class in 2010, but he didn’t accept until one morning “I was putting on my underwear and noticed I had to sit to put them on. I weighed 204 pounds when I walked into the gym,” he said.

A year later, Bowers, who also became a member of the all-male line-dancing class called the Beulah Boys, said he weighed in at 180. His goal now is to drop five more pounds and run the 10K Peachtree Road Race in 55 minutes.

When he joined the class two years ago, Jones said he had high blood pressure.

At a doctor’s appointment seven months later, he learned his blood pressure was normal.

“Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it,” Jones said his doctor told him. “I was shocked.” Jones said he attends classes religiously and misses it when he’s away on vacation.

“I feel a whole lot better. I have much more energy, and my blood pressure is excellent,” Jones said. “I’m a firm believer now in exercise and diet. The combination has made a significant difference in my health.”

That’s the message Banks said she is trying to spread, especially to African-Americans. The proof, she said, is the changes she has witnessed not just in her own health, but that of her classmates.

“This isn’t just about weight loss, though that’s important,” she said. “It’s about being healthy.”

Banks said she started slow, walking around the indoor track before graduating to the 6:30 a.m. boot camp. Within a year of joining the class, she said, she was stronger and had regained her equilibrium.

Anthony Watson, director of the church fitness center, said the 6:30 a.m. class averages about 15 members, up to age 70.

Three days a week, members run through an hour’s worth of circuit training, strength training, aerobics and muscle toning.

In addition to fitness classes such as zumba, line dancing, Pilates and water classes for increased mobility, there’s a full offering of arts and crafts classes.

“We’re doing what the doctors ask,” Watson said. “Matter of fact, one doctor says if everybody would eat right and move, I would not have a practice because they’d be healthy.”

Obesity’s effects on health

• More than 80 percent of people with type 2 diabetes are overweight.

• People who are overweight are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, high levels of blood fats, and LDL cholesterol, all risk factors for heart disease and stroke.

• In 2010, African-Americans were 70 percent less likely to engage in active physical activity than whites.

• Deaths from heart disease and stroke are almost twice the rate for African-Americans as compared to whites.

• African-Americans are 1.4 times more likely than non-Hispanic whites to have high blood pressure.

• African-American adults are twice as likely as non-Hispanic white adults to have been diagnosed with diabetes by a physician.

• African-American adults are 60 percent more likely to have a stroke than their white adult counterparts.

Source: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office of Minority Health