JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -

Researchers at UF Shands have teamed up with a local church to try to save congregation members lives.

For the past eight weeks, members of the Central Metropolitan Church in Springfield have been taking part in a program designed to fight obesity and reduce their blood pressure.

“The program is called HEALS, which stands for Healthy Eating and Living Spiritually, and already here at the Central Metropolitan Church, members are seeing impressive results" said Dr. Sunita Dodani, a cardiologist at UF Shands.

Church members including the pastor are seeing their lives change and an exercise component has been added in.

”Like myself, since the process began, I’ve lost more than 20 pounds, my blood pressure has gone down 35 points, I feel healthier" said Reverend Marquise Hardrick who is the pastor at Central Metropolitan CME Church.

Researchers say dozens of church members are taking part in this 12 week project to lower their blood pressure, and combat obesity.

"Every week, we weigh, our blood pressure is taken, so we are able to chart everything and that gives them the inspiration to carry on" said Hardrick.

The church participants are ages 35 to 60, and some have been identified as having a high health risk. Each week they meet after service, encouraging each other to eat healthier, and make smarter lifestyle choices.

"The Major change we have seen, is the systolic blood pressure, and it's a 7-9 millimeter reduction from where we started" said Dodani.

Dr. Dodani said the church is an influential part of the African American Community.

"They are being honest with one another about their eating habits at home, in a family like environment which is the church. In the African American community they believe in religion a lot so we have this healthy program intertwined with religion, with faith.”

UF Shands has spent $40,000 on this faith based program with hopes of taking it 24 other churches. In the future they plan on applying for financial assistance from the National Institute to Health to continue combining health and spirituality.