Can Church Friends be a Diet Secret?


Photo courtesy of Traci Schermerhorn

Seniors work out at Ankeny United Methodist Church in Ankeny, Iowa. The church has multipurpose rooms that hold both "pews and push-ups" to help encourage exercise in their community.

By Susan Passi-Klaus,

A bold ad in a popular women's magazine enticed health-conscious readers with what marketing-meisters call groundbreaking research. “Lose 7X the Weight!” the plug promised. Their prescription for the success of your next diet and exercise routine is friends. Yes, BFF's—Best Friends Forever. The bottom line, according to the advertiser, is that flexing muscles and doing jumping jacks works better when you buddy-up to share your muscle pain and dietary deprivation.

So is getting in tiptop condition as easy as setting up an exercise play date?

We asked the Rev. John Wagner, associate pastor of health-conscious First United Methodist Church of Ankeny, Iowa for his opinion. Does togetherness make a difference when trying to get physically fit?

“Yes!” he answered enthusiastically.

“Having a friend, spouse or partner walk with us in both our physical and spiritual journey keeps us focused and committed to our goals, all while providing Christian love and support,” the associate pastor said.

Physical fitness ministry

Five years ago, Ankeny’s church leaders went out on a limb. When it was time to build a new place to worship, hands raised in support of creating a multipurpose worship center with a gym as its center. The Christian Life Center is now a place where the fit and not-so-fit find both pews and push-ups.

“You can go to a big box sports/fitness location in any metro area, but you may not have a chance to build relationships that push you both physically and spiritually,” Wagner said.

The active congregation at Ankeny promotes health over hunkiness. They want to lower their blood pressure, keep their hips loose, knees flexible and hearts ticking.

Lisa Furney and Dave Inskeep. Photo courtesy of Lori Staples.

Lisa Furney and fiancee Dave Inskeep go to the mat to get fit together. Photo courtesy of Lori Staples. 

Staying in good shape is something Lisa Furney and husband-to-be, Dave Inskeep, have in common.

“It gives us another shared activity mixed with some mild competition…all in good fun,” Inskeep said. “We prefer working out with someone because it keeps us motivated to keep going.”

Furney admitted she has never felt comfortable going to a gym.

“Without the classes, I might never had started working on this part of my life.”

The active couple also likes bonding with other believers while taking on cardio drills, muscle toning and strength training,” said Inskeep.

Physically and spiritually fit

“That positive connection sustains us,” Furney said. “We appreciate the church’s concern for the ‘whole’ person—being spiritually and physically fit.”

Bodies and souls need encouragers. Director of Sports Ministry, Traci Schermerhorn, has witnessed many relationships that began with chair yoga and flourished during faith walks.

“When you start a fitness class you find yourself in a vulnerable situation,” Schermerhorn said. “Even I have been paranoid I wouldn’t be able to keep up, but I quickly realized that everyone else was thinking the same thing.”

Carol Crall was one of those beginners who worried she’d be a step behind or go to the left instead of right.

Seniors workout in the Seniors Exercising Together at Ankeny United Methodist Church in Ankeny, Iowa.  The multi-purpose rooms holds “both pews and push-ups” with the mission to help people exercise through community. Photo courtesy of Traci Schermerhorn.

Group classes like chair yoga help participants stay motivated. Photo courtesy of Traci Schermerhorn.

Crall, who attends the local Catholic Church, decided to give Ankeny’s Christian Life Center a try. As soon as she walked in the door she saw the smiling face of an old friend, Cindy Fish. Three times a week the duo attend Seniors Exercising Together. The class helps Carol endure her arthritis and motivates Cindy with what she calls her “short attention span” for exercise.

“I need someone telling me what to do or I will quit,” Fish said.

Fitness instructors say it’s important for reluctant exercisers to find a robust cohort who can both laugh and commiserate with you while you are doing squats and gut busters.

Fish remembers when Crall first started class and was supposed to stretch to the floor. She looked at her friend and said, “I can’t do this.” However, as Crall got fitter and fitter, “hugging the carpet” became easier and easier. Now when the counter parts are told to limber up, they still chuckle of the memory of their before and after.

The fact that Krall comes from a different church makes no difference, she said. The center is open to the community.

“The fitness program brings people together,” she said. “I’ve never felt out of place. They have always been so welcoming.”

“Welcoming” is just what Wagner wants the sports ministry to be.

“There is no membership requirement or push for attendance at our church,” he said. “We do not believe we are the gatekeepers of the faith, or that our church has the only right answer.”

“We hope the ministry compels people to worship somewhere, but we also know that for some of our participants the sports and fitness programs at our church ARE their church.”