South Georgia churches take holistic approach to health


By Kara Witherow, Editor

Every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday morning, Brenda Douce laces up her shoes and heads to church.

She’s not on staff and isn’t there to answer phones or fold bulletins. Douce, a member of Tifton First United Methodist Church, goes for fellowship, fun and fitness.

She’s a member of the Ladies’ Fitness Class, a group of about a dozen women who meet regularly to exercise, socialize and grow deeper in their faith.

Douce has been a part of the group for about five years, joining after she retired from teaching.

“I knew that I needed to get into some kind of fitness program to maintain good health,” she said.

The women offer Douce encouragement and accountability.

“I wasn’t doing much on my own, and when you do something with a group they hold you accountable.”

The group, which has been together for about 12 years, is taught by a personal trainer. The fitness routines vary from day to day – they may focus on upper-body exercises one day, do an abdominal and lower body workout the next, and line dance the third day. Each session lasts 45 minutes to an hour.

With all the time they spend together, the women have become like family, and lean on one other for support, in and out of the gym.

“The camaraderie of the group itself helps keep me going,” Douce said. “It has been as much a support group as a fitness group.”

Churches across the Conference are offering their congregations faith-based fitness programs to help them be good stewards of both body and spirit. In a state where more than half of all adults are overweight, they say it’s important for churches to offer congregants and community members health and fitness resources.

And according to numerous studies including those from Purdue and Northwestern Universities, frequent church-goers are more likely to be overweight than their non-faithful counterparts. Between the frequent potlucks, covered-dish suppers and after-service lunches, it’s easy to overindulge and make poor food choices.

“God tells us that our body is a temple, and we need to take care of our bodies,” said Maradare Day, Tifton First UMC’s director of recreation. “Spiritually, we talk about reading the Bible, being involved in small groups, being in church, and surrounding ourselves with Christians, but a lot of times we forget about our physical-ness and our physical fitness.”

In addition to the Ladies’ Fitness Class, Tifton First UMC hosts a weekly volleyball group and Upward basketball. Church and community members frequent their recreation center’s weight room, walking track and basketball court.

“We have a group of women who come and walk the track every day - one woman is 96,” Day said. “They are like a family, too – they check on each other and call each other when they miss a day.”

The Circle of Hearts group at Reynolds United Methodist Church focuses on achieving health and balance in the five aspects of life: physical, mental, spiritual, intellectual and emotional.

Church member Sandra Leverett has a degree in and passion for therapeutic recreation and leads the group, which meets every Monday morning.

Depending on their focus for the day, the group could be practicing tai chi, solving brain teasers and trivia, or praying.

“God loves us as a whole person, and the whole person is important,” Leverett said. “You can do your physical exercise or activities, but if you’re missing the others, you’re not whole. And if you just have a Bible study you don’t have your physical activity. If you have an emotional problem or have something going on in your life you know you have someone you can talk to.”

The benefits to a holistic approach to health are endless, she says.

“By participating in Circle of Hearts, the members enhance their quality of life as evidenced by friendships made and cultivated, socialization increased, physical balance and flexibility maintained or increased, mental health increased through cognitive stimulation, and spiritual renewal and growth.”

St. Mark United Methodist Church’s recreation ministry also takes a holistic approach to health.

Open since the mid-1990s, the Columbus church’s activity center and gymnasium is widely used by church members and Columbus residents.

Pick-up games are played daily on the basketball court. The yoga, boot camp and prenatal exercise classes are also popular.

The church wants to make their facilities open and inviting to all.

Free to church members and at only $15 per month or $2 per visit for non members, access to the activity center’s facilities are inexpensive when compared to other area gyms and fitness centers.

“I think one of our goals with the activity center is to just be available for people,” said Shannon Baxter, St. Mark UMC’s youth and recreation ministries director. “Being able to offer something like that gives people a positive viewpoint on the church, upon Christ, and on what we’re trying to do, and it is a good witness to people around us.”

Building muscles and faith

All three churches – Tifton First UMC, Reynolds UMC and St. Mark UMC – are helping build muscles and faith.

The churches’ activity centers and exercise classes have dual purposes: they help people stay physically fit, but more importantly, they are open, inviting, welcoming places where people experience hospitality, build deep and meaningful relationships, and hopefully, encounter Christ.

After their Thursday morning workout the Ladies’ Fitness Class studies the Bible together. They’ve read through the Bible and have completed an in-depth study of the book of Esther. And out of Tifton First UMC’s regular volleyball games grew the church’s college and young adult ministry.

Two women in Douce’s exercise class are not active in a church. When the group first began to meet for Bible study they declined to stay. The other women continued to invite them and they are now Bible study regulars.

“I have seen them go from not being interested in participating to being there every time,” Day said. “That would not have been possible had they not been coming to this exercise class and gotten involved and made friends with the ladies in the class with them.”

Both St. Mark UMC and Tifton First UMC sponsor and host Upward basketball, with practices and games held in their gyms. As the world's largest Christian sports league for kids, Upward’s purpose is to offer the gospel to the children athletes, Day said.

“These kids are being taught every week about God, and basketball is what’s getting them here,” she said. “We’re using the facilities as an outreach, witness and ministry tool. I have known children who have accepted Christ during that time, just playing basketball.”

Faith and fitness – physical, emotional and spiritual – are tied together, and churches need to lead the way to holistic health, Baxter said.

“We’re doing what God has called us to do,” he said. “We’re taking care of our spirits, but we’re also taking care of our physical bodies and making sure that the Church kind of takes a lead on that. I think that the Church should be on the forefront of helping people take care of themselves, not just spiritually, but physically.

“Our connection with God is also a connection with His creation, and it’s important that we care for God’s creation. We’ve been give the responsibility through scripture to do that, and it ….is making sure that we’re taking care of all creation. We are God’s special creation … and we need to make sure we’re glorifying him through how we take care of ourselves.”