Leading up to our interview, Aaron Perry has me take a look at a chart of “The Leading Causes of Death by Age Group of African American Men in the United States.” The chart is full of dismal statistics about black men on a variety of health fronts – heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, liver and kidney disease and more.
“That chart really hits home. It shows the work that we have to do,” Perry tells Madison 365. “I spoke to a doctor in Cleveland and the way she phrased it for me was that the problem with black men’s health is like this: If you can imagine loading up a 747 jumbo jet, having it take off and deliberately crashing it once a month. If you can imagine doing that … that is how bad the epidemic is. That is the black men’s health crisis. That is what we face.”
Perry was startled to have somebody phrase that so bluntly to him. “But when I went back and looked at all of the leading causes of death, I thought, ‘Man, the numbers add up. What she stated is true,” Perry says. “How she phrased it was very blunt, but it gets to the heart of how much of a crisis this is.”
Perry is on the front lines of combatting racial disparities in health right here in Madison. The first insulin-dependent African-American man to complete an Ironman Triathlon, Perry is the founder and CEO of Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association, a nonprofit started in 2007 to improve the health status of black men. His organization will be hosting the “3rd Annual We’re Off to a Good Start – Men’s Health Conference” on Saturday, Jan. 28 at Fountain of Life Church on Madison’s south side.
“The new year is, traditionally, a time when men rethink their lives and really try to make plans to get their health back on track and we also know that it’s a time of the year when men vow to make changes … change something unhealthy about themselves,” Perry says. “So, ‘We’re Off To A Good Start’ is basically our annual activity and nutrition kick-off program. The goal of this is to really empower men to keep their New Year’s resolutions throughout the year.
Perry wants men to know that if they fall off on their nutrition or exercise promise, that he will be with them throughout the year to get them back on track.
“The Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association, we don’t do one-and-done events. Most of our events have an overarching goal is for whoever comes and participates, we want to keep them throughout the year because we know that when men see some consistency, then it becomes a habit,” Perry says. “We want to hang in there with them until it becomes a habit.
“When people are ready, we have to, as a community, be there for them,” he adds. “Changing your lifestyle and making that commitment to be healthy is a very hard thing to do. That’s why it’s important that we support people in our community when they are ready.
SSMHealth, MG&E, 100 Black Men of Madison, UW Health & Unity Health Insurance have all signed on as sponsors for the conference. Badger basketball assistant coach Howard Moore he will deliver some inspiring words through a Skype-session video to the people at the conference from New York City where his Badgers will be taking on the Rutgers Scarlet Knight that day. The keynote speaker will be Darryl Davidson, City of Milwaukee Men’s Health Manager. There will be a Health Empowerment Panel that will include Dr. Jasmine Zapata, Dr. Lisa Chowdry, Dr. Chris Ford, and fitness guru Haywood Simmons.
“I’m really excited about this panel and the speaker,” Perry says. “They are all very knowledgable and passionate about health issues.”
This year’s Men’s Health Conference will feature their first annual JP Hair Design Biggest Loser Contest. “We will have the official weigh-in right then and there at the event,” Perry says. “It will officially begin on January 28 and it will go until April 22. It’s a 12-week contest and the goal is to motivate and empower people to make lifestyle changes that will benefit them and their loved ones.
“We want better health for men but also for their families,” Perry adds. “That’s the whole purpose for doing this is so that we can be around to watch our kids grow up and to be there for our spouses.”
The Biggest Loser Contest for the Men’s Conference was so popular that Perry started one for women, too.
“The neat thing about this has been that as some of the women in the community have really begun to see the men taking these steps to better health, that they want to get involved, too,” Perry says. “We had an African-American woman come in last week and she asked if she could join our Biggest Loser contest.”
Perry told her that it was really a contest for men but that he would try to find resources in the community to support her. “Within 3 days later, I had received calls from 11 additional women who wanted to join, so we have created a ‘Biggest Loser Contest’ for women, also,” he says.
Perry, who chairs the Dane County African American Men’s Health Advisory Committee, is the facilitator of community health initiatives like Soul Strides and Black Men Run. Perry has brought Black Men Run, which originated in Atlanta, Georgia, and has 50 chapters throughout the United States, here to Madison. Black Men Run meet regularly in Madison to run around town, to talk about health and fitness, and to bond. Perry says he will be recruiting new members for the group at the Men’s Health Conference.
He will also be letting attendees know about his new Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association (RLWA) Men’s Health & Education Center, located inside JP Hair Design Barbershop on Madison’s west side. Approximately 800 men of color visit JP’s each week and can now benefit from daily education about prevention and maintenance of chronic health conditions, healthy living, nutrition, and meal preparation.
“We continue to be impressed and surprised and thrilled with how well this is gone so far. We continue to do our blood pressure screenings and we continue to give out tons and tons of information,” Perry says. “We make referrals on behalf of men, we have guys who are ready to enroll in BadgerCare. That’s one of the biggest things that we have discovered – the number of men who don’t have medical insurance and coverage as well as not having a medical home.
“I think we’ve hit a home run with this because we found the men who are most in need of these services,” he adds.
Perry meets a lot of men at his Men’s Health & Education Center who do not have backgrounds in health and fitness. His status as an Ironman triathlete can be intimidating to people who come to him for help who may be out of shape and not know much about nutrition.
“When people ask about me, personally, I usually just let people know that I’ve been diabetic for 23 years and each year continues to be a struggle. Some years I do very, very well with my diabetes and then there are years when it’s still a struggle to maintain real tight control,” he says. “So, I typically put that out about me being a diabetic but I rarely talk about Ironman only because I don’t want people to feel like that is something they can’t attain.”
It’s that type of positive thinking that Perry wants to have at the 3rd Annual We’re Off to a Good Start – Men’s Health Conference where he hopes to empower men of color ages 10-81 to keep their New Year’s resolutions by developing goals they can stick with all year long.
“This is that time of year where men have a lot in common. We rethink our lives, we make our plans to get our health back on track and then we vow to do something healthy,” Perry says. “If someone has that thought in their head, they should come on board with us because you are just going to join a lot of people that you have this in common with. Sometimes people won’t do anything until they see it. And when they become part of a group, they know that they will never be by themselves. And there is power in numbers, for sure.
“They will be joining men who are not professional athletes nor seasoned health fanatics. There will be people who are starting out from square one. There’s no reason to be intimidated,” he adds. “We have a lot of stuff planned for this event and a lot of stuff planned for the rest of the year.”
For more information about the “3rd Annual We’re Off to a Good Start – Men’s Health Conference” on Saturday, Jan. 28 at Fountain of Life Church, click here.