Worship workout: Atlantans combine faith and fitness

The classes nurture more than your physical health
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Worship fitness
Illustration by Ella Cohen/Folio Art

They say the body is a temple, and some people certainly treat the gym like a church, following the workout of the day like it’s one of the Ten Commandments. But these days, some Christian church­goers are doing more to combine faith and fitness, placing a premium on the health of the body as well as the soul. Partly, the impetus has come from clergy members themselves. More than a third of all U.S. clergy, from any religion or denomination, are obese, according to a 2015 Baylor University study. Lead researcher Todd W. Ferguson told the Baylor alumni magazine, “Pastors are an integral part of the most intimate aspects of community life—marriages, deaths, births—and these often entail food.”

The trend has birthed Faith & Fitness Magazine; a 2010 book called The Rosary Workout, which teaches readers how to pray the Rosary while doing interval training; and the Daniel Plan, an international nutrition and fitness program focused on biblical principles. Created by Pastor Rick Warren in 2011, the plan boasts that in its first year, it helped more than 15,000 people collectively lose more than 250,000 pounds.

Indeed, involving a higher power in your workout plan might make you more likely to stick to it. As any exerciser knows, truly committing to a fitness program requires more than just an occasional willingness to get off the couch. “There are plenty of extrinsic motivators to engage in healthy behaviors—[and] many demands and challenges that lead to compromising those behaviors,” says Carl Weisner, senior director of the Clergy Health Initiative at Duke Divinity School. “If faithful practices include stewardship of God’s gifts—including one’s body, as well as the mind and spirit—then motivation shifts.”

Where can you engage that kind of motivation in metro Atlanta? West Ridge Church in Dallas, Georgia, has two groups that focus on fitness: Winning My Race, which offers five weeks of nutrition recommendations, biblical inspiration, and workout videos; and Run for God, a Bible study and training program that preps participants for a 5K or 10K. JoAnna Ward Faith & Fitness Ministries in north Atlanta, a fitness company founded by the ordained minister, certified trainer, and former Survivor contestant, sets up cruises that focus on spirituality and exercise. Then there’s Gospel Aerobics, which gained popularity after national chain Crunch Gym offered it in New York City with the Harlem Gospel Choir as the live soundtrack. In the metro area, Pilgrim Cathedral of Atlanta has its own version, and Ladies Only Total Fitness in Riverdale offers low-impact cardio set to gospel music. Or check out Fitness by Force, a personal training business founded by Fairburn-based Zumba instructor Tracy Mitchell, which released a deck of cards that pair exercises with motivational psalms. As Mitchell puts it, “I put the word of God in the workout.”

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