Your NPR news source

Exercise with a Mission

SHARE Exercise with a Mission

Twice a week, dozens of men and women on Chicago's South Side arrive at a fitness center in sweats and tennis shoes. It's like any other fitness club—until the music begins. That's when it's clear the people here are on a higher mission, than just toning up.

FOWLER: All right, all right, how are we feeling?

Montsho Fowler stands in front of his class at Lawndale Christian Fitness Center. They've got their work-out mats and hand weights ready to go. The class is so big, it's held on the basketball court.

Fowler pushes the men and women to work out a little harder, and hold that count a little longer.

FOWLER: 5, 6, 7, 8, down, up, down, up. Remember, we want to make sure we keep our stomachs pulled into our spines.

His classes are called “Cor-iffic” and “Toning ‘n Motion.” But they could just as easily be called toning with Jesus or crunches with Jesus. Because here's the music that's the backdrop:

ambi: music

That's right. It's not R & B, or rock, or even retro disco. It's gospel.

FOWLER: Gospel music, to me, it brings us a little bit closer to Jesus. We glorify him while we're listening to the music. We're praising him.

Montsho Fowler isn't alone in making gospel the center of his playlist.

Similar exercise programs have begun in churches across the nation. They've got catchy names like “Gospelcize.” And there's a growing number of work-out DVDs with titles like “Sweating in the Spirit,” “Walk the Walk” and “PraiseMoves.”

At Lawndale, Fowler says all pf the instructors have to use music that's uplifting, and not demeaning to any group.

FOWLER: I think we get caught up too much in my ideal body weight, how can I fit into these jeans? How can I wear my halter top? It's not about your body. It's not about you. It's about increasing God's temple, increasing your health.

One of his students, Nathan Lymon's, been coming almost three years. Lymon says he was turned off by other fitness centers.

LYMON: It's more like a pickup spot. It's a little uncomfortable because most of the guys are there to look at girls, and most of the girls are there to look at the guys, when in actuality you're supposed to be coming in to work out – a lot of vanity in that.

He says the Lawndale center's more down to earth and more wholesome. He works out four to five times a week.

LYMON: Knowing that God created my body, and knowing that this is the temple of the Holy Spirit, knowing that he dwells inside of me, I want to make this temple as pleasing to him as possible.

Several feet away, Linda Audain stands in front of the instructor, and nimbly matches his pace. Audain went legally blind a few years ago. She grew so depressed, she didn't want to leave her house. Then she heard about the class. At first, she was afraid she wouldn't be able to keep up.

AUDAIN: It was more than just an exercise class. It was like being in church, coming in a place where God is. The fear went away very quickly.  That first day I was here, I thought, I can do this.

She says it's done wonders for her self-esteem.

AUDAIN: In conquering this class, it let me know that through that gospel music, there were other things in my life I could conquer, as well.

Right next to her, Irene Jackson works out in a blue T-shirt that says, “Work out and praise the lord!”

Jackson had taken classes before, and worked out at home. But she never stuck with it. She figures if she'd played gospel, maybe she would have.

JACKSON: It makes me work harder to do what I need to do. Because I think, if it wasn't for the gospel music inspiring me to work a little harder and just push myself and say, You can do it, you can do it, I don't know, I'd probably give up quicker.

The workout slows down, and moves into some stretching. Then, it's time for the ritual that ends each workout. The members form a circle in the center of basketball court and join hands.

ambi: Prayer

They head home, with the sounds of gospel, ringing in their ears.

I'm Lynette Kalsnes, Chicago Public Radio.

More From This Show