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Belonging to faith-based communities can add years onto life
One of the 'Power 9' approaches to living longer is simple: Belong
Chelsey Abercrombie, center, walks with her new exercise friend, Shelly Cornett, in the First Baptist Church parking lot as part of its Couch Potato to 5K program in 2014. The class at the Family Life Center trains people for their first 5-kilometer race. The next class will begin July 24 and end with a 5K race and 1-mile fun run/walk Sept. 23 at Midtown Greenway.

EDITOR’S NOTE: National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner visited Gainesville in April 2016 to share his nine “Blue Zone Power Approaches” to living a longer life. This series is dedicated to those approaches and how they can be implemented in Hall County. The seventh power approach, “Belong,” says the world’s longest-living people belong to a faith-based community.

When National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner visited Gainesville last year, he came to share his tips for living a longer life. And while much of his advice for healthy living was centered on the right diet and exercise, one tip in particular stood out from the rest.

The tip, one of the “Power 9” approaches, is simple: Belong.

Buettner and his team studied the world’s Blue Zones, or five areas with the longest-lived people. In them, more than 260 centenarians were interviewed. All but five of them belonged to a faith-based community.

According to the study, denomination doesn’t seem to matter. The research shows attending faith-based services four times a month will add anywhere from four to 14 years of life expectancy.

To the pastors and ministers of Hall County churches, this isn’t news.

“I certainly know faith is connected to being healthier,” said the Rev. Liz Millar, minister of discipleship at Gainesville First United Methodist Church. “When the most critical relationship in your life is with Jesus Christ, all your other relationships stem from that. So when the love and grace that is available to us is the centering stone for our lives, everything flows from that and is better because of it.”

Millar said a relationship with God also improves one’s relationship with oneself.

“It completely changes how you view yourself,” she said. “You are no longer what the world says you should be. You find who you really are in that you are a child of God, made in his image and loved unconditionally by him.”

In Gainesville, the opportunity for faith-based community reaches beyond the church walls each Sunday. At First Baptist Church, the Family Life Center exists to give families and individuals opportunities for fellowship every day of the week.

There is a literal connection between the Family Life Center and physical health, too, as the center has an annual program called Couch Potato to 5K. The free program this year begins on July 24, and helps adults and children prepare for a 5K race together.

“One of the things we stress with the Couch Potato to 5K program and one of the things we like to say here is we like to give a healthy mind, body and spirit,” said Gin Stump, director of the Family Life Center at First Baptist Church in Gainesville. “That’s our focus. We start off with a prayer, and it gives you both accountability and encouragement. That’s kind of hard to find in other places.”

The Couch Potato to 5K program began about nine years ago, Stump estimated, but will be revamped slightly this year. The program lasts nine weeks and is open to the entire community. At the end of the nine weeks, a 5K race and 1-mile fun run/walk will be Saturday, Sept. 23, at Midtown Greenway. The race is named the “Be Grateful Race,” in memory of the late church employee who came up with the program in the first place.

“It was started by Kelli Pirkle, who we lost to cancer last June,” Stump said. “She brought it to the director years ago and they really liked the idea…. She offered so much encouragement to so many people.”

The Family Life Center has other small groups and activities, including a free a kids’ companion program, which allows entire families from the community to come to the center together for healthy activities and exercise.

“I know a lot of people, myself included, don’t take as good care of ourselves as we should,” Stump said. “We have that parent guilt that, after a long day of work, causes you to want to spend your time with your kids. So anyone can bring their kids up here and exercise with them, and know that they’re all in a healthy, happy environment with you.”

Most churches in the area have additional programming. Grace Episcopal Church targets the spiritual and physical health of its members too, with a hiking group among its Parish Life and Involvement activities. St. Michael Catholic Church in Gainesville also has fellowship groups and bible studies, and it caters to its large Hispanic population with Hispanic ministries.

Gainesville First United has additional programming throughout the week, which Millar said creates the sense of a “church family.”

“This is where you get that enrichment in your daily lives,” she said.

The church has an assortment of small groups and Bible studies, including a study that meets Thursdays at noon at Re-cess Southern Gastro Pub in downtown Gainesville and a Monday lunch meeting at Honeybaked Ham that looks at the Scriptures for each upcoming Sunday. A small group also meets Thursday mornings at Panera.

“The small groups are more gathering to talk about, ‘How are we experiencing God in our lives?’” she said. “There is such a variety in these groups. And it’s important for us to be out in the community, because it’s out there where we reach people for the first time, people who aren’t ready to walk into a worship center yet.”

Millar said she views these opportunities for fellowship as simply “doing life together,” both physically and spiritually.

“Sunday worship is important,” she said. “It’s important that we come together on Sunday mornings. But groups like this give us a place to return to in the middle of the week and to see and to recognize our relationship with Christ is more than something that happens on Sundays.”

That, Millar and Stump agreed, is truly healthy.

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