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Faith & fitness: Programs that strengthen body and spirit

The connection between holiness and health is a sentiment that has resonated across faiths forever. But as the American list of lifestyle-related illnesses like heart disease and obesity grows longer than a Lutheran Christmas carol, faith and fitness leaders around the country are coming up with new ways to help the faithful rehab those neglected temples.

The premise is simple: By drawing on spiritual discipline and support from people with shared beliefs, faith helps people find fitness and break healthier bread together. In turn, when people feel better physically, they have the energy to do good deeds, work hard, become better friends and family members, and strengthen their connection with God.

That connection is what led Teresa De Labio to start a local chapter of Holy Yoga at the Fountain Wellness Center in Williamsville. She describes it as a yoga ministry that serves as a welcoming and inviting place for people to experience the health benefits of stretching and stress relief while strengthening their Christian faith.

"It’s a way to create time and space — we don’t like to stop in our busy lives — to sit down, clear your mind from distractions, and have that time with God," De Labio explains. "There’s silence, breathing, focusing on scripture and songs of worship. If you think about it, child’s pose is humble, prayerful."

Shawn Blakeslee’s Fit for Life Ministry also relies on faith to improve physical health. He’s the owner of 360 Personal Training on Delaware Avenue in North Buffalo, and for years he noticed that people would lose weight, then put it back on. He felt like there was more to being healthy than going through the movements: If people’s spirits weren’t in the right place, their bodies couldn’t be either.

"Romans 2:12 essentially tells us that we’re transformed by renewing our mind first," Blakeslee explains. "By quieting our mind and getting focused on where God wants us to be, our bodies will follow."

Blakeslee holds weekend retreats at Camp Findley, a Methodist Church Camp he attended as a child and is in the process of buying (the church decided to sell the property last year). Located about an hour and a half south west of Buffalo near Erie, PA, the camp’s 140 acres of woods and lakefront offer a quiet, serene setting for jump-starting a stronger bond between physical activity (hiking, kayaking, snowshoeing) and a more intimate relationship with faith. Retreat participants also learn about nutrition, take cooking classes, and study the connections made in the Bible between health and God’s intentions.

"I want people to be able to walk away with a good nutritional understanding, the ability to prepare meals, and be able to live a healthier, happier lifestyle — the life that God intends us to live."

Ina Chapman (far right) works with two St. John Baptist Church parishoners, Shirley Marshall and Inez Webb, in the church fitness center.

At St. John Baptist Church, located in Buffalo’s Fruit Belt neighborhood near the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, Pastor Michael and Leading Lady Ina Chapman also take a holistic approach to caring for their congregation and surrounding community. In addition to robust programs that provide housing assistance, employment, educational support, and business opportunities, the church has a comprehensive health initiative that helps improve access to fresh food, physical activity, and medical care for its low- to moderate-income members.

On the food side, the initiative includes a food truck that hands out 40,000 healthy meals focused on a plant-based diet; planting high-yield fruit trees in the neighborhood; and building an organic fishery on church property to provide sustainably raised, hyper-local food. To get people moving, the church offers a walking prayer session every morning, a gymnasium and fitness center, and plenty of group activities like boxing, dancing, drill teams, table tennis, basketball and more. A health ministry of nearly 40 nurses and doctors, all members of the congregation, volunteer their time to help educate fellow parishioners about health issues and chronic diseases.

"This ministry is about breaking down walls to get people closer to God," explains Pastor Chapman. "We use the term ‘wellness’ instead of ‘fitness,’ here, because it’s bigger than that. It’s food, fellowship, social interaction, fresh air, movement, and feeling better. Most importantly, it’s all about making good decisions — both morally and for your overall health."

The idea that physical and spiritual wellness are influenced by every aspect of a person’s life is the basis for a men’s ministry program based out of The Chapel’s Cheektowaga campus — but with a competitive twist. Fight Club, run by Pastor Leroy Wiggins, Jr., is a 10-week challenge that recruits men to work hard on four interconnected pillars: spiritual, physical, relational and nutritional.

Several challenges are issued each week, and participants have to prove they’ve done them via posts in a private Facebook group and check-ins with an accountability partner (yes, it’s encouraged to talk about Fight Club); if someone doesn’t meet a challenge, they get a strike. Three strikes and they’re out (but can come back to the next session). Challenges might include memorizing scripture, making friends with a new neighbor, drinking more water, doing 20 sit ups every day, trying a new fruit, posting a photo of you and your family exercising, holding hands with your wife, or thanking veterans at the VFW for their service.

Since it started two years ago, more than 700 men from 41 churches have gone through the program and emerged — according to their partners and the men themselves — as better men all around. Wiggins speaks with pride about the guy who lost 40 pounds, the man who reconnected with his estranged daughter after 37 years, the one who got off his diabetes medication, and the wife who changed her mind about filing for divorce once she saw real changes in her husband.

"We’re not trying to create Olympians, we’re just taking guys outside of their comfort zones and getting them healthier in all aspects of their lives," says Wiggins. "It’s a Christian discipleship tool that captures things guys like — competition, camaraderie and fun."

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