Dr. Bernice Coleman of Cedars-Sinai and Rev. Judi Wortham-Sauls, first lady of Holman UMC. (Cedars-Sinai photo)

 Usually spiritual health is foremost in mind when it comes to attending church.  However, Pastor Kelvin Sauls takes a holistic approach and wants a physically healthy congregation as well.

“It is inconsistent to serve souls in the sanctuary and then kill their bodies in the fellowship hall,” he said.

His philosophy led him to welcome Cedars-Sinai’s offer to conduct a feasibility study, officially called the Sodium Healthy Living Project (SoHelp), with 60 of his parishioners to lower high blood pressure, a silent killer in the black community.According to the American Heart Association, more than 40 percent of African Americans have high blood pressure.

“High blood pressure doesn’t hurt until it’s too late and you are faced with kidney and heart problems,” noted Dr. Bernice Coleman, a nurse researcher and practitioner at Cedars-Sinai, who helped create SoHelp in collaboration with the California Black Nurses Association.

“The goal of the program is to teach people to understand nutrition labels, understand the role of salt in their diets and monitor their numbers such as systolic and diastolic blood pressure and cholesterol and learn to make healthier choices,” said Coleman.

 Participants in the educational 12-week program learned how to read and take their own blood pressure and the importance of exercise, sleep, stress reduction and mindful eating. They will also experience a cooking class and a Tai Chi experience.

Nearly 60 members of Holman UMC are part of the SoHelp program. (Cedars-Sinai photo)

All participants were outfitted with a digital blood pressure cuff, a Fitbit to monitor walking and taught to use MyFitnessPal software to log and measure their food for sodium content.  Weekly sessions are held at Holman where the study group receives dinner; health information and nurses collect data from their medical devices. Also, the Council on Black Nurses Los Angeles, a partner in the study, provides advance practice nurses who call participants at home twice a week to check on their progress and answer questions.

The various elements were designed to support the introduction a groundbreaking component of SoHelp, which was introduced April 3 when the study group received virtual reality (VR) goggles as part of the just-in-time educational reinforcement of healthy food choices.

According to Brennan Spiegel, director of Health Services Research for Cedar Sinai Health System, “Virtual reality is this new technology that’s mainly used for gaming and entertainment.  What we’ve been discovering is that it can be used for therapeutic purposes to help manage everything from pain to anxiety to depression and in this case, high blood pressure.”

Dr. Coleman shows a participant how to use the VR goggles. (Cedars-Sinai photo)

The VR content uses three scenarios to help participants reduce their salt intake, explained Spiegel. The first experience is in a kitchen with plates of covered food.  Lifting the dome, the viewer sees a favorite food such as steak along with its sodium count and suggestions of comparable foods with less salt.

The second VR section gives the viewer a tour of the heart, brain, kidneys and arteries that show how salt affects these organs. The third setting lets the viewer leave the kitchen for a beach setting where five meditations delivered by Sauls are available for listening.  The topics cover different aspects of wellness to reinforce what the participant has learned and help change behavior.

While the study has another six weeks before it is completed, Coleman expressed optimism about the results. “What we really want to see is what we’re beginning to see – that people become more aware and use technology as feedback to help them begin a partnership with their healthcare provider to achieve collaborative self-management of their own health,” she said.