If a little prevention really is worth a lot of cure, three decades of work by the Arnold School of Public Health’s Prevention Research Center has helped make the Palmetto State a healthier place.
Since 1993, the center has worked with communities and partners across South Carolina to promote physical activity and better nutrition to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, weight gain, mental health issues and more. Authorized by Congress in 1984, the Centers for Prevention Research Program was created to address chronic disease and other leading causes of death and disability in the United States.
The center at USC is one of the longest continuously funded centers since the network was founded. Initially, his work focused on understanding the role of the environment in walking and cycling and providing training and technical assistance to help communities create environmental and political change. More recently, churches that have accepted it have long-term acceptance of the center’s main program — Faith, Activity and Nutrition.
“It’s very difficult to change people’s behavior, and persevering with change can be a challenge,” says Sara Wilcox, a professor of exercise science at the Arnold School who has been the center’s director since 2011. “In multiple studies, we’ve seen large changes in church organizational practices and small, but significant changes in member behavior. FAN is now included in the National Cancer Institute’s database of evidence-based cancer control programs.”
More than 300 churches across the country participated in the FAN program, which promotes physical activity and healthy eating. As word of the program’s effectiveness spread in recent years, the Prevention Research Center received training requests from churches across the Southeast and across the country and began online delivery of the program in 2019.
The center, funded by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recently applied for another five-year funding cycle that will begin in 2024 and continue to focus on faith-based partnerships.
“We’re proposing a partnership with the AME Church in South Carolina, focusing more on seniors and physical activity and social connection,” says Wilcox. “It’s a way to reach a large number of African Americans and address health disparities. Our work started early with AME churches and we are excited to reconnect with many of those communities.”
The Prevention Research Center also enrolled 107 churches representing 18 denominations in 23 states for a national study of the implementation of the FAN program.
In addition to partnerships to create healthier communities, the center contributes to the development of the public health workforce and early career public health researchers by offering intensive courses for researchers and practitioners called Physical Activity and Public Health Courses. Longtime exercise professor Russ Pate was a leader in establishing the courses, with original funding from the CDC through the Prevention Research Center. He continues to lead the research course, while Sara Wilcox leads the practitioner course. Since the beginning of the courses in 1995, more than 1100 participants from 23 countries have graduated.
In addition to core funding from CDC, the center has received many additional grants from CDC, the National Institutes of Health, and several foundations. These fellowships, led by PRC researchers and faculty, focused on topics including cancer prevention, aging, brain health, arthritis treatment, food safety, and weight loss.