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Can God inspire you to lose weight?
If the body is a temple, Steve Reynolds was a “temple-trasher.” The senior pastor of Capital Baptist Church in Annandale, Virginia, inhaled a tub of ice cream nightly, didn’t exercise for decades and swallowed eight medications for diabetes and other diseases related to his weight daily. At 340 pounds, he knew his lifestyle would kill him. “I’m looking forward to heaven,” he remembers thinking, “but I’m not ready to get there yet.”
So Reynolds practiced what he preached and asked God for guidance. “God said to me, ‘Why don’t you look in the Bible?’” he remembers. Sure enough, it had answers. In fact, Reynolds found, “it’s a health book.” By studying it and its 179 inclusions of the word “body,” Reynolds began making healthy changes like “eating good stuff that God made” and trading his recliner for movement. Today, at 58 years old, he’s 100 pounds lighter and disease-free. “I changed my habits and God changed my health,” says Reynolds, who went on to write the book “Bod4God,” which outlines his Bible-inspired prescription for lifestyle change.
While the church has historically focused on nurturing the spiritual body often at the expense of the physical body, it’s increasingly understanding that the two can go hand in hand, says Scott Roberts, chair of William Jessup University’s kinesiology department, where aspiring sport and fitness professionals learn to incorporate Christian perspectives into their practice through courses like “faith-based fitness and wellness.” “We believe our bodies are very important to our faith, and that’s kind of new,” he says.
It’s also important: While, by and large, religious beliefs – and particularly attending religious services – are linked with positive health outcomes such as lower disease risk and increased longevity, the research is more mixed when it comes to how religion affects diet and body size, says Tyler VanderWeele, a professor of epidemiology in the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. In fact, some research suggests that certain religious groups – namely Baptists and Fundamentalist Protestants – may be particularly prone to obesity. One study even found that young adults who frequently attended religious services were 50 percent more likely to become obese by middle age than their counterparts who didn’t grow up going to services. And when it comes to pastors, more than three-quarters are obese, Reynolds points out. “This has been a kind of forsaken thing in churches,” he says. “The leadership doesn’t focus on it, and we don’t see the damages coming from it.”
Fortunately that’s changing; the American Council on Exercise even predicted that faith-based fitness programs would be the second biggest fitness trend in 2016. Reynolds’ Bod4God program, for one, draws on Bible passages (a la “Christ will be magnified in my body”) to outline four “keys” to weight loss: Honoring God with your body, motivating yourself for change, managing your diet and exercise habits, and building a circle of support. It also reminds readers that Jesus Christ, after whom Christians believe humans are modeled, must have been fit and strong in order to keep his carpentry job and walk from Sidon to Tyre in one day. “He could walk 40 miles, not in Reeboks but in leather sandals,” Reynolds writes, “and yet His followers on this planet are unhealthy, overweight, sedentary couch potatoes.”
Such programs are onto something, experts say. While working out to, say, get a spring break body tends to be unsustainable, exercising as a way to connect with God or to celebrate the body as his creation may keep you coming back. “We don’t necessarily train to look good, although, yes, that’s a byproduct,” says Nikki Espina, a Christian personal trainer in New York City and contributor to “Faith & Fitness Magazine.” “If you’re strong, you can help other people, and I believe that strengthens your faith because that’s what I believe Christians are called to do.”
Plus, the nonjudgmental atmosphere of such programs appeals to the devout and atheists alike, says Hilda Labrada Gore, the regional director of Body & Soul in the District of Columbia metro area. “Fitness is not only for the 20-something who … wants to have a beautiful body,” she says. “Fitness is for all ages.” That communal spirit, too, seems to be precisely what makes religious service attendance so beneficial to health, adds VanderWeele, whose recent study found that women who attended religious services frequently were about 33 percent less likely to die within six years than those who never did. “There’s something about the communal religious experience that’s essential,” he says.
For Leffler, who began taking Body & Soul classes after a several-year hiatus from exercise, the approach is paying off: She credits her thrice-weekly classes with giving her more energy and making her stronger – “you can see muscle definition where there wasn’t before,” she says – as well as with lifting her out of a period of depression, giving her mental clarity and deepening her faith. And, while she used to drag herself to gym, exercise is now something she looks forward to. “It’s just what I do and I love it because I know that I’m going to come away from it better in so many ways,” she says.
In Reynolds’ congregation, meanwhile, members have lost more than 12 tons through church-sponsored weight-loss challenges, walking groups and a commitment to including healthy food options in church potlucks. Reynolds encourages churches across the country to take heed by, say, establishing a “wellness ministry” that can organize healthy activities for congregants like a 5K race in support of a charity. “We’re trying to sound the alarm; we’re trying to get people to wake up,” he says. “We’re making some progress.”