A church-based programme to encourage a healthy lifestyle lowered systolic blood pressure more than an educational programme alone delivered in other churches, according to new research in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, an American Heart Association journal.

The Faith-based Approaches in the Treatment of Hypertension (FAITH) trial is the first and largest community-based study to evaluate the effect of a comprehensive lifestyle intervention on blood pressure reduction among African Americans in prominently black churches. Previously, other faith-based interventions have successfully increased cancer screening, reduced weight and improved fruit and vegetable intake among churchgoers, researchers said.

"Implementation of a lifestyle program in a faith-based setting was very effective in improving blood pressure control and could be routine practice in places of worship," said Gbenga Ogedegbe, senior author of the study, professor of medicine and population health, and director of the Center for Healthful Behavior Change at the New York University School of Medicine. "This is particularly important for black communities who suffer a disproportionately higher burden of heart disease due to high blood pressure, and who may not have access to care due to a lack of insurance or mistrust of the healthcare system."

Researchers evaluated the impact of a program that combined faith-based lifestyle change with motivational interviewing compared to health education alone on 373 adults in 32 traditionally black churches in New York City. Participants were average age 63 and 76% were women. The program was delivered by trained lay church members.

The intensive intervention included 11 weekly 90-minute sessions focused on a healthy diet (low-fat and low-sodium with plenty of fruits and vegetables), exercise, weight loss, adherence to medication and stress reduction. The curriculum included prayer, scripture and faith-based discussion related to health. After the intensive intervention, participants received three monthly phone calls to help motivate them to continue the lifestyle changes.

In churches not part of the intense intervention, participants received one session on lifestyle change followed by 10 sessions of health education delivered by local experts. In total, 32 traditionally black churches participated.

Researchers found that after the six-month intensive phase of the program, systolic (top number) blood pressure was reduced 5.8mmHg more in the faith-based lifestyle change group than in the health education group. The benefit was sustained but smaller (5.2mmHg) after nine months. However, researchers could not rule out that the latter finding was not due to chance alone. There was not a significant change in diastolic pressure.

"Although the blood pressure reduction at nine months did not reach statistical significance, its clinical implications remain very important given that most trials of high blood pressure treatments have a similar magnitude of effect," Ogedegbe said. "We do think that a stronger support component in the six- to- nine- month period may have led to even greater blood pressure reduction. Future studies could evaluate additional support, such as tailored text messages and brief check-ins with lay health advisors.

"Future efforts should focus on how to maximize the potential public health impact of these community-based interventions, such as increasing participant enrollment, engagement and retention. Then, we'll need to scale up and sustain what works."