When she first began leading group exercise classes at YMCAs and health clubs in the Milwaukee metro area, Desiree Alexander really enjoyed helping people achieve their fitness goals. However, after several years she felt compelled to do much more than help individuals change their bodies. She aspired to change lives. "My motto is 'mind, body and soul,' " says Alexander. "You have to work the three aspects together because your body's not complete without all three."
As it turned out, the Y, despite its 19th century Christian underpinnings, was not the ideal setting for Alexander to pursue her work. But Alexander's own house of worship, the Holy Temple Firstborn Missionary Baptist Church, was. It's there that for the past five months Alexander has offered fellow congregants the opportunity to participate in gospel fitness classes three times a week.
As one might expect, participants in Holy Temple Firstborn's high- and low-impact aerobics, step aerobics and cardio kickboxing classes exercise to the soul-stirring and toe-tapping beat of gospel music. Each class begins and ends with prayer, although throughout the hourlong sessions Alexander also offers spiritual messages of encouragement (such as "When you are down to nothing, God is up to something").
It is through this trinity of personal improvement that class participants receive a total-body workout. "My pastor put his foot down and said that we're no longer going on without a fitness ministry," says Alexander, who, like her pastor, sees much value in using fitness as a spiritual recruiting tool. "You can reach your congregation through Christ alone. But sometimes, we need to have another incentive to take a walk with Christ. Christ kept Himself in shape. He walked everywhere. So if you're not able to run, walk."
Such has been the recent beck and call of churches all across the country, churches that are reaching out not only to spiritually lost members but to those who need physical guidance, as well. A 2002 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 78 percent of black women ages 20 to 74 were overweight, with more than 50 percent qualifying as obese. "Our people are dying," says Victoria Johnson, whose Lake Oswego, Ore.-based Victoria Johnson Fitness Ministries is a leading marketer and provider of gospel fitness programs. "They're overweight, overstressed, underpaid, in debt, exhausted, diseased. Everything about us is being challenged."
African Americans are now turning to their houses of worship for solutions to their health problems - in part, because of the long-standing role of churches as the centers of black communities. But gospel fitness is also filling the void left by this country's mainstream fitness industry - which, according to Johnson, has historically targeted white consumers. "I've been in the business for 15 years, and I find that there is no comfort for African Americans in the traditional white gym. They're not going to the local 24-Hour Fitness or their corporate wellness center," she says. "Those places are homogeneous. They don't speak to us. They don't know our language."
And when Johnson says language, she's really referring to culture - particularly music. "For us, gospel is a lifestyle," she says. "It's not simply, 'We do church on Sunday, leave and then go to work on Monday.' We are living, breathing, spiritual people. You're not going to have people who go to church on Sunday come in on Monday and bump and grind at a 5:30 Step class. Parents are trying to get their kids to turn off all that wild, crazy music that has their kids thinking sexual thoughts. And then you want to bring that same stuff into a fitness class and play it for those parents?"
For that reason, Johnson's fitness classes are free of what she calls "garbage music," and instead invite exercisers to sweat to the spiritual sounds of gospel or worship music. In fact, the use of such music is one of the ground rules for inclusion in the international directory of gospel and Christian fitness programs on Johnson's web site (victoriajohnson.com).
One of about 300 fitness ministries listed in that directory is the program at First Baptist Church of Lithia Springs, Ga., where Kristine Bowman has taught fitness classes for the past six years. Each class costs just $1 and is open to all comers, even so-called nonbelievers. "Not everyone who comes to our gym is a Christian," she says. "But they're here for a reason."
Those reasons include exercisers' desire to improve their health, to shape up for an upcoming class reunion or other event and to meet new people. "Every once in a while, we go on a four-mile fellowship walk," says Bowman, whose regular aerobics classes are held three times a week in both the mornings and evenings. "At the end of the walk, we circle up in prayer and ask everyone if they have any prayer needs. It's great because you have a whole hour to get to know each other."
A similar custom exists at Milwaukee's Holy Temple Firstborn, where Alexander provides an opportunity for her class participants - all of whom are women and regularly number from 15 to 20 - to share with the group news of their personal triumphs and setbacks. "We do a praise testimony, where we get in a circle," she says. "That's the time when people can talk about how their doctor has removed them from high blood pressure medication or how they were able to get into a pair of blue jeans that they hadn't been able to get into for a long time."
Alexander believes that gospel fitness ministries' ability to provide a non-intimidating, group-help environment has helped lead people like the exercisers at Holy Temple Firstborn to shun houses of bod for houses of God. "Women who are in my class say, 'Whoever wants to come, can come,' " says Alexander, noting that men in her congregation, though their fitness needs may be just as great, have yet to see the light. "The men are self-conscious. They think that the women are going to laugh at them because they're not as coordinated. But it's not like that. We never laugh at anybody. If anything, we laugh together. That's what Christ is all about. It's all about coming together and enjoying Him at the same time."