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Mark A. Johnson,
M.S.S.W., B.S.W.
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Mark Johnson knows that the fight against obesity takes an entire community. That's why in Lexington, Kentucky, he is bringing together a community of African American sisters and brothers to change eating and exercise habits.

As the health equity team leader of the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department, Johnson looks for innovative ways to provide timely health information to those who need it the most. So in 2004 when he first learned about the Sisters Together: Move More, Eat Better program, he was eager to bring it to his community.

Sisters Together is designed to encourage African American women to maintain a healthful weight by being more physically active and eating more healthful foods. It is an initiative of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, and the National Institutes of Health through the Weight-Control Information Network.

"The program is all about forming relationships with and between African American women," Johnson said. "Women are usually seen as heads of the household, so if we can get them on board, we can get their families on board."

Johnson's department implemented the program by creating low- and no-cost community aerobics classes. It also produced health marketing materials such as church fans, flyers, newspaper articles and segments for local television shows. The program culminated with a health conference at the Consolidated Baptist Church, attended by nearly 100 African American women.

The Sisters Together program received rave reviews; so Johnson recently created the Brothers Together Health Program, modifying the original program to fit the needs of the African American men in his community. His goal: to help make men more accountable for their health.

"Most men leave meal preparation to their significant others. They have little or no input, and they eat only what is in front of them," he said. "Men also are uncomfortable with changing tradition. We need to teach them that they don't have to change everything; they just need to make some modifications."

Johnson hopes to kick off his Brothers Together program with a men's health conference during National Men's Health Week, which is June 11--17. With many local men's groups already interested, Johnson is teaming up with some of the community's progressive ministers to develop the program's components. His goal is to get 200 men to participate in the first conference.

"Men tend to neglect their health, just as women do," Johnson said. "If we can get men to come together and take an active role in their health, we can change lives."