ACE recently hosted a conversation in observation of both Black History Month and Heart Month that focused on strategies to prevent cardiovascular disease (CVD) in the Black community. The discussion was led by Anthony Wall, MS, Senior Director of Global Business Development and Professional Education at ACE. Joining him were Kinetra Joseph, MA, Director of the CDC Foundation’s Live to the Beat campaign, and Tasha Edwards, Board-certified health and wellness coach and an ACE Certified Group Fitness Instructor.
Most health coaches and exercise professionals know the unfortunate statistics around heart disease and CVD: Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States.
CVD is the number-one contributor to all racial disparities in life expectancy.
Perhaps less known is the toll that the COVID-19 pandemic had on those statistics, particularly in the Black community. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the pandemic set the United States back five years in terms of progress being made in preventing heart disease across all races and ethnicities. That number is double for Black adults in the U.S., who lost 10 years’ worth of progress.
All of that said, let’s set aside those grim statistics, as one of the first things Joseph learned when conducting focus groups in Black communities was that people don’t want to hear those numbers and they don’t want to be told what they should be doing. Public health messaging sometimes feels like it’s wagging its finger at people, scolding them for failing and reminding them of their mortality.
One of the goals of the Live to the Beat campaign is to use a more upbeat approach and be more forward-looking. They serve up resources and establish connections to local organizations to help them implement sustainable steps that address this critical issue, but in a more positive way. “It’s called Live to the Beat for a reason,” says Joseph. “We are about leaning into Black joy, Black culture and living and celebrating life, and how these steps can improve your quality of life, not just reduce your risk of dying.”
Importantly, the campaign acknowledges and empathizes with the fact that the preventive steps to reduce CVD risk are easier said than done, particularly in communities that often lack safe places to exercise or access to healthy foods.
So, what is the solution?
According to Edwards, who is also the Executive Director of See Her Healthy, a nonprofit organization that provides women with access to resources to help them attain their highest level of health, “It’s about sharing with people what they can do as opposed to putting fear in them about what they can’t do.”
Health coaches and exercise professionals should help clients celebrate every step they take. After all, taking one step more than yesterday creates forward motion. If a client tells you that they like to blast music while they dance around the kitchen doing their housework, engage in that conversation, says Edwards. Ask what kind of music they listen to and remind them that movement, no matter what form it takes, is meaningful and important.
Edwards also suggests collaborating with clients to add habits, rather than taking things away. Guilt and shame build resistance, she explains, so talking to people about what they’re doing wrong is usually going to push them away rather than drawing them to you as a trusted partner in their wellness journey. Everyone wants to be affirmed, so helping clients recognize what they are already doing well can be powerful. Taking small steps to improve lifestyle-related behaviors—a centerpiece of the Live to the Beat campaign and Edwards’ work with her clients—can lead to big changes over time.
The Value of Accessibility and a Sense of Community
Wall explored the concept that there may be a disconnect between how people think they should be engaging in physical activity based on traditional messaging and what the Live to the Beat campaign is trying to accomplish with its messaging, as well as Edwards’s work in the Black community as a health coach and exercise professional.
Clients often show up feeling defeated, explains Edwards, because of something a doctor said to them. People are starting their journeys feeling “less than” and with a sense that it’s simply going to take too much effort and time for them to get healthy. They’ve often given up before they’ve even gotten started.
This is where active listening becomes vital. Or, as Edwards puts it, “You can learn so much by keeping your mouth closed.” People will tell you what they like, what they don’t like and why, she says, so the role of the professional is to expand from there, building on what the individual is already doing and what activities they enjoy. Doing that helps the client develop confidence and makes movement feel more accessible.
As Wall explains, there is a huge difference between being physically active and performing structured exercise programs. People can move throughout their day rather than attending a one-hour class at 6 a.m. before heading to work, for example.
Edwards agrees, saying that feels like too much of a commitment to a lot of people and leaves them feeling defeated and lazy if they don’t make it.
Another way to counter the negative feelings that some people associate with exercise is to build a sense of community around physical activity. “The idea of community,” Edwards says, “of seeing people like you, who have bodies like you, who came from where you came from, who understand your language, your vernacular—it is a sense of ‘I’m not in this by myself.’”
This is one reason why the team behind Live to the Beat believes believe that representation is so important. The website and resources reflect the broad diversity within the Black community in terms of skin tones, body types and sizes, hairstyles and so on.
Coming out of the COVID pandemic—during which “we all changed,” says Edwards, whether it’s through illness, loss of a loved one, depression, anxiety or financial struggles—it’s even more important to create a space where people feel safe being themselves.
How Health Coaches and Exercise Professionals Can Get Involved
The team at Live to the Beat challenged themselves to think about ways in which people receive all kinds of messaging, from social media, traditional media, advertising and while out in their communities. The goal was to become part of that messaging in a way that will drive positive responses and lasting behavior change.
The campaign has provided what Joseph describes as “a good, wide range of content and resources and messages that are uniquely designed to be most powerful when leveraged by individuals and organizations who are able to provide that more focused touch.”
If you are a trusted leader in your community and are interested in joining Live to the Beat’s network of influencers who are “helping more Black adults live their best, healthiest lives,” you should complete a Community Ambassador Interest Form.
Or, you can visit the Live to the Beat Campaign Toolkit, where you will find “user-friendly materials and resources you can use to educate and equip your audiences to practice heart-healthy habits that can help lower their risk for heart disease and stroke while also improving their overall quality of life.” These resources include video PSAs, educational videos and animations, the Pulse Check tool (a digital interactive roadmap to better heart health), flyers and posters, and graphics and social media posts you can share alongside the resources you provide in your own community.
As Edwards says, “It starts with us going into our own communities.” Yes, it may be easier to make money staying in the gym and letting customers come to you, but you can make a much bigger impact in your community by packing your bag and meeting people where they already are, then collaborating with them on the small steps they can take to not only live longer, but also better and more joyfully.