Fitness and fellowship By Kate Long December 22, 2012 Kate Long Coal trucks barrel past Mingo County's Little Dove Baptist Church, but the Fitness and Fellowship group found a way to walk anyhow. Fifteen times around the church is a mile. Since June, the group has scored big drops in blood sugar, blood pressure and weight. Before they walk, participants stretch with exercises they got from the Arthritis Foundation, mixed with "whatever makes us feel good," said 90-year-old regular, Arva Reynolds (right). Six months ago, Wanda Maynard, 72, could make it halfway around the church once. "Now I get around six times without puffing," she said. She has cut her insulin dosage by more than half. "This program has brought us all so much closer," said Karen Reynolds, right. "We're taking care of each other's health. That's really motivating." Jeff Reynolds measures his progress and calculates the calories he burns with his phone app. Read a related story here. BELO, W.Va. -- On Tuesdays and Thursdays, when the weather's good, you can see them out there, walking around and around church, 20 or 30 of them, circling the Little Dove Independent Baptist Church. Some stride. A few hobble along with canes. "I may be in first gear, but I get there," said 72-year-old Wanda Maynard. Last spring, they figured out that 15 times around the church is a mile. "In Mingo County, if you try walking on the road, you risk getting flattened by a coal truck," said Pastor Jimmy Maynard (no relation to Wanda). A few hundred feet away, coal trucks whiz by on narrow, twisty W.Va. 65, a steep hill on one side, a creek on the other. "They don't let coal trucks stop them," said Dr. Patty Jo Marcum, their medical adviser. She grew up in the 132-year-old church. "We're a close bunch," she said. "I'm so proud of them." They started exercising last spring. Jesus was a healer, Pastor Maynard noted. "We had sisters and brothers with sugar problems, knee problems, arthritis and heart problems, and we decided it was time for us to step up," he said. "When the body's fit, the spirit's more likely to be fit, too." "I advised them to walk and stretch," Marcum said. "They created their own program from there. They have such a good time together, they keep coming back, and I'm telling you, they're getting results." When they started, Wanda Maynard couldn't walk half way around the church. Now she makes six or eight times without puffing. Last May, she needed 20 units of insulin a day. Now she takes four to seven units. Pastor Maynard discovered in June that he has Type 2 diabetes. Since then, he has lost more than 60 pounds, dropped his pants size from 50 to 44 and cut his blood sugar and cholesterol in half. Tom Sloane used to ride his lawnmower down the hill to the mailbox because he was afraid he couldn't walk back up. "Now I walk down the hill and walk back up," he said. He had rotator cuff surgery last summer. "This walking appears to have lubricated my rotator joints," he said. Wib Thompson organizes the walks. His early morning blood sugar used to run around 225. Now it's about 120. Last spring, Marcum told her grandmother, 79-year-old Beulah Davis, that her blood sugar was so high that she was going to have to go on medication. "I walked it back down," Beulah said. "What Little Dove is doing is simple, straightforward and do-able," said the Rev. Jeff Allen, director of the West Virginia Council of Churches. "It doesn't cost them anything. It's something any church could easily do." "Most churches have a nurse or doctor who can help them," Marcum said. "If every West Virginia church did what Little Dove is doing with just 10 people, that would be 30,000 people with better health," Allen said. "Think about that." There are roughly 3,000 churches in West Virginia. "Churches can be an important part of the answer to our health problems," he said. "It's got me thinking how we could spread this statewide." Here's how they do it When it's too cold to walk outside, the Little Dove walkers do laps around the basement fellowship room instead. "Thirty-two times around is a mile," Thompson said. "We aren't doing this so we can be good-looking," Pastor Maynard said. "We're doing it so we can feel better and see our grandkids grow up. Enjoy the life God gave us." Surrounded by junk-food ads, with no gym, they're learning how to protect themselves anyhow. A typical session: At about 6 p.m., they pull into the parking lot and drift inside in sweatshirts and running shoes, hugging and weighing in, joking and checking blood pressures. "If you take those shoes off, you'll weigh less" somebody says. "I want you to look at how loose my pants are!" someone else says. "Fellowship is the glue that holds it together," Pastor Maynard said. "We call it Fitness and Fellowship." Mostly in their 50s and 60s, they pray and stretch, do knee bends, waist twists and leg lifts, and then start walking. Ninety-year-old Arva Reynolds troops along, her Lifeline Rescue button hanging around her neck. People like to tease her about the time she pushed the button to find out if it would work, and a bunch of firemen arrived at her house. "I just wanted to see if I could get me a man," she said, shrugging. Everyone laughed. They walk after Wednesday night church, too. That's three nights a week. Most exercise on their own, too. Since May, they've shed several hundred pounds, collectively, and drastically lowered their blood pressure and sugar, fellowshipping and laughing all the way. "Others can see how well it's working," Pastor Maynard said. New people keep joining, he said, including some who don't attend Little Dove. In the fall, a church member led them in the Arthritis Foundation's five-week "Walk with Ease" stretching program. "We still use lot of those exercises," Maynard said. They use others they got from Dr. Oz on TV. "It goes by quick when you have people to talk with!" Beulah Davis said. "We fellowship before and after we walk," Maynard said. "Lots of nights, we'll be here another hour, telling stories, laughing, praying, trading recipes and Bible health trivia, solving problems. "We trade healthy recipes we find on the Internet, or sometimes tell how we changed a recipe to make it healthier," he added. "We try to apply what we've learned at church dinners. We bring healthier dishes, grilled chicken instead of fried, vegetable dishes, what have you. We're still Baptists, and Baptists like to eat, but we've got choices at the dinners now." "This has been good for the church. It's brought us all a lot closer," Thompson said. "We're taking care of each other. That makes you close." "The fellowship keeps them coming back, the way they support and care for each other," Marcum said. If they had to exercise on their own, many probably wouldn't, she said. "If people from another church want to do this, they should feel free to contact me," Pastor Maynard said. The Little Dove program is taking a break for Christmas, he said, but come 2013, "We'll be walking again. This isn't a fad. It's lifestyle change." Reach Kate Long at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1798. "The Shape We're In" has been supported by a Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism fellowship, administered by the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.