An Exercise In Inspiration; Gospel aerobics help participants sweat off the pounds while bulking up their bond with god


Margaret-Ann Howie is warming up the congregation.

"We magnify him!" Howie bends low from the waist and swings her arms up, then side to side.

"We laud him!" She slides to the left.

"We honor him!" She slides to the right.

"Amen!" the congregation is with her all the way. They mimic her moves, perfectly in beat with the pumping music.

On this gloriously warm evening, a group of women have come together in praise of the Lord. They are here to worship Him. They are here to glorify Him. They are here to burn off fat and whip their bodies into shape.

This is no church. Their "sanctuary" is the Signature Women's Fitness Center gym in Westview Mall. And this gospel aerobics class is their workout/prayer hour. Gospel aerobics classes have been around for some time. But perhaps not quite like this.

This is gospel aerobics with just as much emphasis on gospel as aerobics. Come to think of it, maybe it is church, at least for a few hours during the week.

"We think gospel aerobics is almost a misnomer," Howie says. "Anyone can put on gospel songs and bounce around."

Howie does play gospel music. And sometimes she plays music with no gospel theme. But Howie's congregation always receives a healthy dose of good, old-fashioned "praise the Lord" hallelujah preaching along with the high-energy, fat-burning routines.

It goes over well.

"The combination of gospel and aerobics is really good," says Jacqueline Lee, 37, who was taking the class for the first time. Lee, a home health aide, found out about gospel aerobics through a notice in the bulletin at her church, New Psalmist Baptist.

She will be back.

Howie and Cyndi Williams lead the gospel aerobic workouts on Tuesday evenings at the health club and are both members of New Psalmist Baptist Church where they also teach classes. They know how to fire up a crowd.

Howie, 36, works as a lawyer in her 9-to-5 life. But on gospel aerobics nights, lawyering duties are set aside and the certified aerobics instructor comes out in full bloom.

"You're looking good!" she encourages the women in her class. "Does God blow your mind? Yeah!"

Williams, 41, is an information systems director with a background in dance.

"Endurance, intensity, love and discipline" are common themes for the workouts, Williams says. "Love of God, love of self, love of others. We want to be able to work out, praise God and pray openly without it being an issue," she says.

Howie also comes to each class with a particular religious theme in mind.

"I like stories, bible stories. People can relate to that," she says. "I also like concepts. Like prayer or 'acts,' which means adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication.

"As folks are going through the movement, they are able to use their entire being, not just their physical being, to pray. We think it's important to integrate the person's faith with the person's physical awareness, spiritual and mind awareness," she says.

The warm-up

Back at a recent workout, Howie's concepts for this class are "endurance and praise."

The class starts with the women clasping hands in a prayer circle.

"Tonight's theme is endurance," Howie says minutes before she will test the group's physical endurance with a heart-thumping workout.

"We are going to offer him different praises throughout our workout. Amen?"

"Amen!" the group responds in one voice.

And then the music starts pumping loud, and Howie swings into action.

"The first thing when we praise the Lord, we tell him how magnificent he is! In four, in three, in two, in one let's bring those arms up!"

Howie and her charges swing arms over high to the right and the left.

"We tell God how wonderful he is! He blows your mind! Awww yeah! Awww yeah! In four, in three, in two, in one. Now grapevine to the left."

The congregation does a commonly known aerobic step, moving to the left side, feet deftly keeping beat to the rhythm.

"We are so thankful! We grapevine to the right."

Ditto on the right side.

Howie doesn't miss a beat. She's "grapevining" and bending, bouncing and preaching. The women follow suit -- except for the preaching.

"Another way we praise God is giving him our talent and gifts. As we are working, we should be giving him our glory through our work. Right foot forward. Left foot back."

Everyone's worked up a sweat by now.

"We work to the glory of our Lord. We've got to offer our work to him! In four, three, two, one. Double step to the right."

They do.

"Double step to the left."

They do.

"Praise him with our right hand."

Right hands go up in the air.

"Think about not just what he's done. But what he will do! Praise him with our left hand."

Howie is an energetic blur of muscle with a very low fat mass. She's hot now, as in on fire in speaking God's word, and working out.

"I know you all want to praise God! My strength is my Redeemer. Give it up!" She encourages the women to use all of their energy, give it all they've got.

They do, and Howie is proud.

"Oh God! You all are bad! All right, get some water. Hydrate your bodies. And stretch. Work a muscle, stretch a muscle."

Whew. Break time. Thank God.

'Anchored in Christ'

The gospel aerobic classes have been going on for about a year and are held Tuesdays with Howie and Williams, and Fridays with different teachers.

Besides the gospel aerobics classes, there's also a Saturday afternoon bible study class sponsored by the Springs of Refreshing Church that meets at the health club.

Although there are the usual aerobics and other classes with no religious theme, Carroll Roberts, president and CEO of the health club, says his business is "anchored in Christ."

"We always tried to get a lot of church people and people who don't exercise to come in," says Roberts.

Roderica "Roddie" Mills is just one of those women.

Mills, 50, is a school teacher and a former distance runner. The weight has crept up over the years, she says. She enjoys the gospel aspect of the workout and hopes it helps to keep her committed to the exercise program.

"This definitely helps with stress," she says about the physical aspects. And the healthy dose of religion?

"It is so inspirational!"

Pub Date: 9/04/99

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