Weight loss

Bod4God: How faith can help fitness

Jan. 31, 2012 at 8:50 AM ET

We attempt to lose weight for all kinds of reasons: to impress old friends at a high school reunion, to fit into a favorite pair of jeans, or simply to better our overall health. But Steve Reynolds, head pastor at Capital Baptist Church in Annandale, Va., suggests that better motivation may come from a higher power: Do it for Jesus.

At his church, Reynolds leads a weight loss competition program that has helped his congregation lose more than 12,000 pounds since 2007. Reynolds himself has lost a staggering 120 pounds. "I want to show people -- all types of people, especially Christian people -- that we're made by God, but we're also made for God, and we need to honor him with our bodies," he told TODAY.com's Kyle Miller. 

The program -- and subsequent book, with its catchy title, "Bod4God" -- bases its weight loss concept on one of the Ten Commandments: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." In contemporary Christian churches, this verse is usually interpreted to mean simply, "Put God first." Reynolds believes that some American Christians who struggle with their weight may be unwittingly valuing food over their faith. (He certainly isn't the first to recognize the link between religion and obesity: A study published last March showed that young adults who attended weekly church activities were 50 percent more likely to become obese by the time they reached middle age.) Giving junk food like cheeseburgers and fries too much power over your life undermines your relationship with God, Reynolds says, while expanding your waistline. 

Reynolds, of course, isn't the only person in the country to attempt a faith-based fitness program. There is also Christian yoga, Christian tai chi, Christian Zumba and something called Gospel Dance Aerobics. And if you'd rather run or workout at a gym, you can load your iPod with contemporary Christian albums specifically designed for workouts. 

Successful church-based programs may work, at least in part, because we generally have more success exercising together than we do on our own. A fascinating 2009 study on Oxford University rowers found that the athletes were able to push themselves through more pain when the team exercised together than when the individuals exercised alone. 

In another recent report, researchers used Biblical passages to develop a 12-week lifestyle program for diabetes prevention, and found that nearly half of the overweight and obese African-American participants dropped at least 5 percent of their body weight -- what's more, they successfully kept the pounds off for six months. Parishioners' close ties with each other, combined with a belief that they're losing this weight for a purpose greater than themselves, may explain the program's success. (An added benefit: a church-based weight loss program may reach people who wouldn't seek such a program out on their own.) 

"It gives you power to know that you're never alone, that God is with you," Reynolds says. "And that he gives you that motivation and that willpower that you need."

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