Congregations are praying and playing together in pursuit of healthier bodies.
Published March 8, 2010|Updated March 8, 2010

He takes his spot before them, bringing the room to silence.

Every Monday at Seminole Heights Baptist Church, Mark McGee teaches his students discipline and mercy. Here, they learn that God is in control, and that their bodies are a gift.

This isn't just any Bible study. This is Christian martial arts - one local example of a growing national trend of religious health practices.

"Heavenly father, we pray that you will bless this class," McGee says. "We pray that you will be pleased with all we do and say tonight."

The students look down, eyes closed. A poster of Christian financial guru Dave Ramsey is on the wall behind them. At the end of the prayer, it's time to practice kicks.

"Kia!" the students scream as legs fly through the air.

McGee's class isn't the only way in the area to get fit with a higher power. Trainers in Brandon and Wesley Chapel offer exercise counseling with a Bible in hand. The Countryside Christian Center in Clearwater offers Zumba, while other congregations try to promote fitness with heathy food at church functions.

Options multiply online with countless Christian-oriented fitness magazines, workout music and weight-loss programs. The Christian Broadcasting Network also promotes "Faith and Fat Loss" programs and other health tools.

So what's with God and exercise? In Christian tradition, the body is considered a temple of the Holy Spirit, explains Dr. Harold G. Koenig, a physician and professor at the Duke University Medical Center who has studied religion and health for nearly 30 years.

While the devout tend to steer clear of vices such as drinking too much or doing illegal drugs, they do tend to be hefty, Koenig says. That's reflected in studies done in the past 10 years on religion and health.

"That problem has to do with the fact that religious activity typically occurs around the setting of food," he says. "And sometimes the food is not very healthy."

As more attention has been given to obesity, Koenig says, it makes sense that churches have started to pay attention to health problems plaguing congregations. Religious communities are ready-made exercise groups.

So far the trend is primarily within Christianity, he says.

"It's a win-win," Koenig says. "Within these communities people tend to monitor each other. They ask you if you're taking your medications or notice that you smell like smoke. It's social pressures that are healthy for people."

At the Christian Fitness Center in Brandon, trainer Casey Schmidt puts a Christian spin on CrossFit , an intense strength and conditioning program started by a gymnast. Schmidt's classes begin with a prayer, and clients are encouraged to add friends and family to the list.

About 60 percent of his clients seek him out because the training is influenced by Christianity, Schmidt says. They want an option beyond the typical "meat market" gym, and like that religious principles keep the class on the straight and narrow, right down to word choices.

"If you curse in my gym, you have to put 25 cents in the swear jar, and we donate that to a charity," the Plant City native says. "Or you have to give me 10 burpees."

Schmidt demonstrates: He crouchesto his knees, then flattens his body into a push-up position on the ground, then brings his legs back in and ends with a jump up to the sky.

A man in back of the room warming up for the day's session mutters that he's helped fill the swear jar quite a bit.

People of faith find it natural to seek out others who are like-minded, says Elizabeth Ross-St. Pierre, a trainer in Wesley Chapel. She runs Ross Fitness, a Web-based fitness ministry that until recently was based in St. Petersburg.

"You can expect a certain quality and standard of character from someone who puts themselves out there as a Christian," she says. "We can offer a different kind of encouragement. When you realize that you're a child of God and that you've got that power within you, you remember that with Christ all things are possible."

The focus is then taken off how someone might look in the mirror, or how much stronger he or she can get, she says.

It's that shift -the focus on values -that keeps Jack Fernandez coming back to McGee's martial arts classes in Seminole Heights. Fernandez and his son, Kenny, are members of the church and have studied martial arts with their sensei for several years.

To earn the next belt, McGee requires students to memorize Bible passages while connecting the words to character qualities such as honesty, organization and self-control.

"We don't learn fighting, but instead how to defend ourselves," Jack Fernandez says. "We don't even use the word 'fight.' We emphasize self-defense and mercy. If you put someone down, you stop.

"It's Christian."

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at, or (813 ) 661-2454.