If you want to get healthy, you just might not want to go to a doctor. You might instead, go to church.  The power of community to create health is far greater than any physician, clinic or hospital.

You are more likely to be overweight if your friend’s, friend’s friend is overweight than if your parents are overweight. Your social networks may matter more than your genetic networks.  But if your friends have healthy habits you are more likely to as well.  So get healthy friends.

In the fall of 2010, I had dinner with Rick Warren, the pastor of the 30,000 strong Saddleback Church in Southern California. He came to see me to get healthy – and he got religion about health.

Over a healthy dinner of beet and cabbage autumn soup and a salad, he described his extraordinarily successful experiment for sustained personal growth and change. Rick encouraged his congregation to form 5,000 small groups that met every week in their community to study, learn and grow together.

In a flash, in that moment, I envisioned using those same small groups as a means of creating healthy lifestyle change.  Out of that meeting, with Drs. Mehmet Oz and Daniel Amen, we collaborated to create The Daniel Plan, a roadmap for physical and spiritual health and renewal that would be delivered through the small groups. Rick named it “The Daniel Plan” after the first health support group created by Daniel and his friends who resisted the temptation of the King’s rich food and were healthier for it.

On the day we launched The Daniel Plan at Saddleback Church on January 15, 2011, over 8,000 people signed up to participate in small groups, track their progress and be part of a research study. Within a week over 15,000 had signed up.  The groups are supported by a weekly curriculum, learning objectives, videos, webinars, seminars and online support.  In the first year the congregation has already lost over 250,000 pounds and it changed the entire culture of the church almost overnight.

Community: The Best Medicine for Change

The seed of this idea started in my mind when I went to Haiti after the earthquake in January, 2010.  Paul Farmer and Partners in Health have created a powerful and successful model for treating drug resistant tuberculosis and AIDS in the most impoverished nations in the world.

The brilliance of the vision wasn’t coming up with a new drug regimen or building big medical centers, but from a very simple idea:  The missing ingredient in curing these patients was not a new drug, but the community.  They needed someone to “accompany” them to get healthy.

Recruiting and training over 11,000 community health workers across the world he proved that the sickest, poorest patients with the most difficult to treat diseases in the world could be successfully treated.   The community was the treatment.

The same vision can be applied to our current diabesity epidemic.  Solutions are not coming from governments, health care institutions or corporations.  What has been proven to work over and over, in different settings – workplaces, community centers, faith-based centers, schools – is building a community-based support system to guide people toward sustainable behavior and lifestyle change.

The cure for obesity and diabetes is not a mystery, just as the most effective drug regimen for tuberculosis or AIDS is not a scientific mystery.  Knowing how to effectively get it to the individual has eluded most experts.  But the data is in about lifestyle change, we know how to deliver the information and make it stick.  We have to help each other, not look for outside solutions from large institutions.

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