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Ecclesiastical Exercise

by Carrie Myers Smith on Mar 01, 2005

Faith meets fitness for programs that work body and soul.

At Debbie Mandel’s fitness classes, you won’t find a plethora of skintight Lycra®, bared six-pack abs or booty-lifting jargon. No, the participants in Mandel’s program aren’t interested in such worldly things. They simply want to “Change Habits.” And appropriately so, as these fitness seekers are all nuns at Queen of the Rosary Motherhouse in Amityville, New York.

“I have worked with the sisters to help them turn stress into strength,” says Mandel, author of Turn on Your Inner Light: Fitness for Body, Mind and Soul (Busy Bee Group 2003). “The program has encouraged the sisters to change their habits—to focus on good health, posture and energy, to help them carry out their important outreach missions.”

Mandel’s platform for the sisters: Have strength in your faith and faith in your strength. “The sisters set a wonderful example for the lay members and for all women,” says Mandel. “If you take care of your body, which is the repository of your soul, you can live longer, be stronger and perpetuate goodness. I urge everyone to lift weights to [in turn] lift their spirits.”

Mandel is not alone in her quest to forge faith with fitness. Many classes, programs and even entire gyms are making the fitness–faith fusion part of their missions. And we all know that many fitness pros have been holding classes in dark, dank church basements for years. They’re just finally bringing their programs into the light!

Aligning Faith and Health

Germantown Baptist Church in Germantown, Tennessee, runs its own 100,000-square-foot recreation facility called the Recreation Outreach Center (the ROC). According to IDEA member Carla Rafferty, recreation ministry programmer, the ROC houses two full-sized gyms, a walking track, racquetball courts, weight and cardio rooms, a childcare area, a restaurant, a bookstore, a game room, and locker rooms with showers and saunas. The facility offers personal training, as well as everything from yoga and Pilates to kickboxing, step, martial arts, ballet, and tumbling programs for kids.

In La Jolla, California, the Qualcomm Sports, Fitness & Aquatics Complex at The Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center (JCC) offers the same types of programs one might find in any fitness center in the United States. “Our members have access to a wide variety of classes, including dance aerobics, sports circuits, indoor cycling and hip-hop,” says fitness and wellness director Crystal Powers. “The fitness center is an additional community service the center offers, and it is open to everyone.”

While some may see this bridging of faith with health and fitness as a reason to cry “Separation of church and gym,” it’s not a new concept. Many of the world’s religions emphasize physical as well as spiritual wellness. “Aligning faith and health is an advantage that completes the picture of optimal health,” contends Leah Scott, program director of Fit4You Fitness Camp, a 2-week lifestyle change program in Pine Forge, Pennsylvania.

In the Beginning

If you’re interested in designing and implementing your own faith-based program, the first thing you’ll want to consider is location. For Jackie Schanlaber, MS, a group fitness instructor and personal trainer in Lancaster, New Hampshire, the answer was simple—her place of worship. She began “4F,” which stands for “Faith-Filled Female Fitness.” “We’ve done it for the past two summers,” she says, “and I hope it becomes an annual thing.”

When choosing where to hold a class, Rafferty recommends, you should check out things like floor surface—is it suitable for cardio classes? How about the height of the ceiling? Sometimes, church basements have low ceilings that don’t allow much room for overhead activities. Will anyone besides you be teaching? “I’ve cautioned church leaders that teaching a good class requires more than just being fit,” explains Rafferty, “and so much more than having a good personality.” Be sure that any other instructors are as qualified as they would need to be for a secular-club position.

Whether your chosen location is connected to a church, a synagogue or some other place of worship, you’ll also need permission from its leaders to hold classes in their facility. If you already worship there, the process is simple. Go to the appropriate person, whether it’s the pastor or someone in charge of activities. If you don’t attend, Rafferty suggests you prove yourself trustworthy and capable.

“Have a representative from the [organization] observe you in a teaching setting and get references on your reliability and how well classes are attended,” she says.

“It’s important to have a connection so that the decision makers understand you’re not attempting to run a for-profit enterprise in their building,” adds Lou- venia Anderson, founder and president of Totally You, a faith-based program for overweight and obese children.

Depending on the establishment, one obstacle you might run into if you are not a member is affiliation. Many religious meeting places require instructors and program directors to share the same faith as the members and to agree to a statement of that faith. So while you don’t necessarily have to attend there, you must share the same beliefs. This is partly because of the faith and fitness “bridge.” Many programs intertwine faith and fitness through prayer, a small devotion or religious music. So they expect instructors to be able to relate to participants in the spiritual realm and share the same beliefs.

“The biggest difference [between our programs and more traditional fitness classes],” explains Schanlaber, “is that we’re focusing on spiritual wellness at the same time as we’re exercising.” As an example, she says, they pray before and after working out and memorize scripture as a group.

At the ROC, classes end in prayer and/or a short devotional, and personal trainers often offer to pray for their clients’ needs. “The only difference [between us and a secular gym],” says Rafferty, “is that our instructors and trainers are intentional about meshing spiritual truth with physical fitness.”

Well, maybe not the only difference. Because many faith-based programs see their fitness programs and facilities as an outreach and a ministry, they charge very minimal rates to use the facilities—if they charge at all. “General use of our weight room, cardio room, track and racquetball courts are free,” says Rafferty. “The [group fitness classes] are $3.50 per class or $30 a month for an unlimited class card.”

According to Rafferty, gym memberships in the Germantown area run around $45–$50 a month, so it’s easy to see why about half of the ROC’s participants aren’t church members. “Since we’re nonprofit, it’s expected that our program cost would be less, because we’re supported somewhat by the church budget.”

Sometimes this budget can also provide equipment. For instance, when Schanlaber needed exercise mats, her church took up a special Sunday offering.

The Positive Punch

Other differences you may run into at a church or other religious venue are restrictions on your dress, music and format choices. Many of the larger facilities have dress codes not only for instructors but also for members. “Participants can wear tanks and shorts,” explains Rafferty, “but we try to monitor things like exposed abs and really short shorts. [We try to] provide a wholesome atmosphere where folks of all sizes and fitness levels will feel comfortable and welcomed.”

While the ROC offers classes traditionally based on Eastern philosophies—martial arts and yoga, for example—it tailors them to meet members’ needs. “We try to find ways to be cutting-edge and on top of the trends,” says Rafferty, “and design them all to be Christian-based.”

Galit Raziel Kissos, director of Fit4Me Professional Fitness Services in Jerusalem, leads classes for Jewish Orthodox women. This client base presents a particular challenge. “We have to work out in skirts and shirts with long sleeves to instrumental music only,” Kissos says. “No men are allowed to see our bodies.”

In regard to song choices, the ROC uses “a variety of music, including Christian music that’s been remixed with a steady bpm.” They weed out secular music that they feel is inappropriate. Mandel uses “the spiritual music of Kitaro.” The JCC plays contemporary, popular music with no restrictions. And Scott says that Fit4You classes include classical, meditative, spiritual and nature sounds in their musical roundup.

One final difference between a faith-based program and a secular one can be income. Schanlaber’s classes, for instance, are offered as part of the women’s ministry. Just as participants don’t pay to attend, she volunteers her time to teach.

“All my instructors are volunteers,” says Rafferty, who provides her instructors with two options. “We offer to pay them, but we also offer an opportunity to volunteer and have the church pick up the tab for certifications, continuing education training, shoes, music, DVDs, etc. This works out really well, mainly because our instructors are dedicated and very reliable. They see this as their ministry, and they have a passion and a gift for teaching fitness.”

Churches and other faith-based groups offer just one more market to you as a fitness professional. This market may not be a large source of income, but—depending on your beliefs—it might fulfill your own purpose to help others build a bridge between physical and spiritual fitness.

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About the Author

Carrie Myers Smith

Carrie Myers Smith IDEA Author/Presenter

As the former fitness and wellness coordinator at the Omni Mt. Washington Resort in the beautiful White Mountains of NH, Carrie has had the privilege of training and teaching people from all over the world. As a motivational speaker and author of the award-winning book, Squeezing Your Size 14 Self into a Size 6 World: A Real Woman’s Guide to Food, Fitness, and Self-Acceptance, Carrie touches people’s lives, encouraging real, lasting change, and offering a chance for them to find the courage within themselves to take the first step. Carrie also has experience speaking and presenting over various media, including radio and television and has presented to various sized groups--from small and intimate to over 500. Her signature yoga class, Yo-Fit™, continues to grow in popularity. With a foundation of vinyasa-style yoga, it is sprinkled with elements of fitness, and appeals to many who are intimated by traditional yoga classes. Carrie has a BS in exercise science and health education and is a certified Transformational Coaching Method Master Coach, and a therapeutic exercise physiologist with experience in disease prevention and treatment, as well as pre- and post-orthopedic surgery and rehab. She writes frequently as an expert for industry publications, including ACE and IDEA, and has also written for many national consumer magazines, including Shape, Fitness, Cooking Light and Health. She was also the head writer for IBM's online employee wellness program for eight years. Other writers frequently turn to Carrie as a fitness expert for their own articles, which has resulted in her being quoted in several magazines, including Self, Cooking Light, Better Homes and Gardens, Successful Living, and Family Fun. Her companies, CarrieMichele Fitness and Authentically You with CarrieMichele Coaching, strive to enrich women’s lives through wellness-related education, empowering each woman she touches to make their mark. Her goal: to not just survive, but to thrive, to live up to her potential, not just the status quo, and to find something to celebrate each day…and to teach others to do the same. Connect with Carrie on FB at or or Or on Twitter @CarrieMicheleM Or on LinkedIn at