faithandfitnessGail Mates had eaten her way to 218 pounds when, one might say, divine intervention pulled her off the highway where she was heading to an early grave.

She was riding by a church outside Washington, D.C., when its marquee cried out to her: “Weight-Loss Competition.”

“This is my last-ditch effort,” she thought.

Mates picked up the phone and called Capital Baptist Church in Annandale, Virginia, where Pastor Steve Reynolds himself had lost 130 pounds through a program he created called Bod4God.

Gail Mates before her weight loss journey

Gail Mates before her weight loss journey

“For me, that meant surrendering my knife and fork and ice cream spoon to God,” said Reynolds, who is part of a growing trend of faith intersecting with fitness.

“I had high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes,” he said. “Today I’m 57 years old, and I’m disease free.”

According to industry experts, the number of churches adding a health or fitness component to their ministry is on the rise.

“Rec sports has been with a lot of churches for a long, long time,” said Church Fitness owner Rob Killen, who works with faith-based groups interested in developing fitness facilities. “Now more of them are looking to add fitness as an outreach in part of their ministries.”

Large churches like Houston’s First Baptist Church, Prestonwood Baptist Church outside Dallas, and Bellaire Baptist Church in Bossier City, Louisiana, all have large recreation and fitness centers. They include basketball courts, weight rooms, group fitness rooms and indoor walking/jogging tracks.

Other churches and faiths offer screenings for high blood pressure and cholesterol and partner with groups like the American Heart Association to educate their flocks on the importance of health and wellness. And diet books come with titles like “The Maker’s Diet” and “How to Succeed on Any Diet: A Jewish and Friendly Guide to Dieting & Exercise.”

At The Luke in Humble, Texas, health awareness is one of four pillars of the church. Members recently completed a 90-day fitness challenge that included fitness trainers, Zumba and boot-camp sessions, weigh-ins and some seminars. Winners were recognized in front of the 6,000-member congregation, and the grand prize winner received two roundtrip tickets to a destination of his choosing. In the fall, the focus will be on childhood obesity.

“We really believe in ministering to the whole person,” said Erica Worley, director of development.

Brad Bloom, who publishes the online magazine Faith & Fitness, said people can often articulate their goals, such as losing weight or reducing their chances for a heart attack or attracting a mate, but they may have difficulty communicating or identifying the deeper spiritual needs that brought them to the gym.

Churches are increasingly adding health and fitness to ministry outreach

Brad Bloom of Faith & Fitness Magazine.

“A lot of times those are things such as they’ve recently gotten a divorce, or lost a loved one to cancer or they’re just tired of the grind,” Bloom said. “There’s almost inevitably a deeper driving force, or several driving forces, that are spiritual in nature. So connecting faith with fitness, we believe, is absolutely paramount if people are truly going to have success.”

Four years ago, Pastor Joseph Williams started a 40-day holistic program within his congregation at Salem Bible Church in Atlanta called The Journey. It worked on him, helping the former college football recruit drop to a healthy size from his former 330 pounds.

“Like many Americans, everything worked until it didn’t,” he said.

There are about 2,000 graduates of the program, which teaches people to eat healthy and deal with emotional toxins, incorporating spirituality in the process in a small group setting.

“That’s nothing more than reinforcement of reading the word of God, meditation and prayer,” Williams said. “There are assignments that cause a person to reflect spiritually on their weaknesses, their strengths.”

Churches are increasingly adding health and fitness to ministry outreach

Dr. Joseph Williams of Salem Bible Church in Atlanta

Williams plans to share what he’s gained with attendees at MegaFest on Aug. 19-23 in Dallas, an extended weekend of faith, family and fun hosted by the well-known Bishop T.D. Jakes, founder of The Potter’s House, one of the nation’s largest megachurches.

“I’m pleased and proud to have something I can share with other churches that does work,” said Williams, who will be at the AHA booth at MegaFest. “So I definitely think people are open to this conversation.”

Pastor Reynolds of Virginia said overeating needs to be discussed.

“In the Christian community this is what I call the sin we forget to talk about,” he said. “It’s not about the weight as much as it is about honoring God with your body.”

Mates, who called about the weight-loss competition, initially put off answering Reynolds’ phone calls, but the pastor persisted.

Mates had lost several relatives to heart disease and figured she was next in line. After her father suffered two heart attacks and a stroke that ultimately cost him his life, she began eating uncontrollably to comfort herself.

“At that time I was eating a breakfast of a whole box of cookies, a bag of potato chips and cherry Coke,” she said.

She weighed 218 pounds, had developed high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, sleep apnea and bleeding ulcers. She also needed two esophagus surgeries.

“My daughter would come into my room in the middle of the night to see if I was still breathing, and she would cry every night and plead with me to change my unhealthy lifestyle,” Mates said.Gail Mates working with AHA

She started attending the weight-loss “Losing to Live” events and liked the progress she made with small, simple changes that added up to big results.

“I started to pray before I would go into the grocery store that I would at least make some change,” she said. “So I started to shop at the perimeter of the grocery store where the good foods are, the unprocessed foods, the foods that God intended us to eat.”

And she made baby steps with exercise. At first she only walked around her house five minutes a week.

“And I felt so good, even though it was small, every day I kept adding to it and adding to it. So finally the five turned into a 5K.”

Now, at 59 years old, 65 pounds lighter and free of unhealthy risk factors, Mates, a national Go Red for Women spokeswoman, is a role model for others.

“It makes me feel good that I’m making a difference and people are changing their lifestyles and bottom line, they are going to live.”