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Does the Church Care About Fitness? Mt. Zion’s Bishop Walker and Dr. Walker Say “Yes!”

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Bishop Walker, Dr. Stephaine Walker, Mt. Zion, ChurchFIT

The Church is deeply ingrained in the fabric of the African-American community and has cultivated many of the most inspiring movements in our history. For many, church is more than a Sunday gathering place for praise and worship; it is also the place to find strength, hope and encouragement for everyday battles. There are so many topics and issues that affect our community, but why not health and how we take care of our bodies? This is arguably an issue that receives little attention.

A 2014 State of Obesity report states that “more than 75 percent of African Americans are overweight or obese.” So the question must be asked: When will the dinner plate be become a part of traditional discussion much like the offering plate? Bishop Joseph Walker, III, pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee and his wife, Stephaine Hale Walker, MD, believe that time is now!

In 2011, the couple launched ChurchFIT, a health and wellness initiative to marry personal faith with personal fitness. ChurchFIT not only offers exercise classes like ZUMBA, Pilates, and kickboxing five days a week but the nearly-30,000-member congregation also has access to cooking classes, nutritional guidance, and health coaching. Over the past four years, ChurchFIT has grown from an event into a Biblically-based healthy lifestyle ministry.

Read our interview and discover the inspiration behind ChurchFIT and how the Walkers want to inspire pastors around the country to answer the call to make health and fitness a priority.

BFT: What exactly is ChurchFIT?

Dr. Walker: ChurchFIT is a healthy living, healthy lifestyle program that we have at Mount Zion here in Nashville. It was founded out of my husband’s heart in the basement in our home, after he started to get his health together by working out with a trainer, chef and other resources that we had here. And based on his momentum and the things that he was able to achieve, we decided to go ahead and push the similar resources to the church; but to do it for free for people. And so the ChurchFIT program is really a holistic program – we focus on mind, body and soul. We have exercise classes such as Pilates, ZUMBA, kickboxing and cardio classes five days a week at two of our church locations. We also have cooking classes that are run by two separate chefs, along with a nutritionist and they also host nutrition classes as well.

BFT: In a 2002 article by the American Journal of Public Health called “Role of Black Churches in Health Promotion Programs,” the study discussed in this piece found that there is a genuine interest in health promotion amongst the black church, but there are barriers, such as pastors and clergy feeling overburdened with this responsibility, a lack of resources, suspicion of outside organizations due to the history of research abuse and exploitation in our community. So, with all these obstacles that you may be facing, how do you push for a culture of healthy living amongst the members in your congregation and the community?

Bishop Walker: I think what we’ve been able to do is to really make [ChurchFIT] a fixture within our ministry. It now has become part of the culture in every aspect. It must be programmed within the life of the church so everyone has a buy-in. For instance, even if you came and spoke at our church about something unrelated to ChurchFIT, you will still feel the culture of ChurchFIT because afterwards you come in and you’d be [served] something like a kale salad or baked chicken versus traditional fried chicken.

We also minister to over 3,000 college students alone from eight different campuses and after church we give them a free meal and try our best to make sure it’s healthy. I think it’s also about how pastors really take the lead in teaching and preaching about it. I talk about health from the pulpit. One of the things that I attempt to do is give some theological foundation to this whole idea of health. I use the example that with Jesus Christ, there is no way he could have endured the passion of the cross if he had not been in physical shape, and I use that to suggest that our purposes are never truly fulfilled if we don’t have the energy to actually give in fulfilling them. So part of being in good health is good stewardship because you can’t ask God for more territory if you don’t have the strength to get it going and finish strong.

Dr. Walker: When we first started ChurchFIT people were curious. Bishop and I were getting into shape and they were watching his body transform right in front of their eyes…you can’t have a pastor who is out of shape but telling everybody else to be healthy. So, you have to the best example so that people understand that it’s not just rhetoric but it’s actually something that is lived out every day.

BFT: So if we can, let’s touch on your personal health and fitness journeys.

Bishop Walker: So basically, I was about 230 pounds and I didn’t really feel that I was overweight. It was just a natural thing for me. I wasn’t physically a big guy but you start learning about things like Body Mass Index (BMI) and that you don’t have to be morbidly obese – you could be obese and not look like it. So that really encouraged me and as a result I got a trainer, and started working out and changed what I ate. I used to eat pancakes, scrambled eggs with cheese, I was going hard! Every Sunday morning I was at Waffle House and I had to change. Now I eat egg whites, oatmeal, fruit, grilled chicken and fish. I think it really has helped because the weight just started shedding.

The ironic thing about church is this – and you guys should understand it – when you start losing weight initially it is perceived that something is wrong. You know, “what’s wrong?” Nobody asks that when you’re gaining weight. I had to constantly get in front of my church and say “Guys, I’m well. I’m doing good. I’m in the best shape of my life,” and I had to educate our people about not making people feel guilty for that. Another thing is learning how to say “no” to the cobbler that “Mother Johnson” or “Sister Betty” worked all day in the kitchen to make, regardless of the guilt from not wanting to hurt their feelings. There comes a point when you really have to step away and say “no.” And it actually became a big issue for me to say “no thank you. I just can’t do it. I appreciate the love but I can’t do it.” So that kind of brought a whole new culture to our church and it has worked.

BFT: Dr. Walker, how did you get on your personal fitness journey?

Dr. Walker: Well, I’ve always been somewhat of a fit person but then of course my husband and I got married and going from Boston, Massachusetts to down here in the South, within three months I put on 10 pounds. And of course I walked in my closet one day and couldn’t fit much of anything that I had and I just looked at him and said “this is not going to happen to us. We are going to get it together. We are going to get back to where we know that God wants us to be,” and we started working out together. We got ourselves a personal trainer, chef and a nutritionist because it’s not just about working out but 60% or 70% of getting back into shape and good health is what you eat. People run around or they exercise like crazy and they come back home and eat whatever they want, thinking that they’ve earned the right to, not realizing that they’re really shooting themselves in the foot by erasing all the benefits of actually working out. We didn’t do it overnight but we did it in such a way that we were able to sustain it. So really, it was a complete lifestyle shift but it was one step at a time and I got back down to my normal healthy weight.

We workout fairly regularly when we can. Obviously when we travel sometimes it’s difficult but we’ve done things like put weights and other little things in our suitcases to make sure that if we don’t get to the gym, we can workout in our room. I even have DVD’s that I bought online and use to work out in my hotel room just to make sure that I keep moving. It’s not always about losing weight. It’s not about exercising for hours. It’s about doing something. Get up and be active in some way, shape or form. Sometimes just taking baby steps is good enough to at least get you started.

BFT: How have you seen ChurchFIT grow and develop over the last four years?

Dr. Walker: Wow! It’s grown and developed in such a way that people look forward to it. At first, people were just curious but now understand that it’s something that could really help to transform, not just their life but the lives of their families. We’ve seen an increase in teachers and participation in terms of our youth and children as well, not just the adults. We have seen more of our “senior saints,” (50+) exercising with us. We’ve also added classes, from two to ten. We have two cooking classes with one at each location and added additional chefs. We have also added another component in terms of education and congregational awareness such as hosting campaigns and classes regarding heart health, stroke awareness, and diabetes education.

Bishop Walker: Recently in church we brought attention on how to actually identify strokes. We had a big campaign and that was really awesome.

Dr. Walker: During kidney awareness month, we had professionals come out and do urine screening to check people for kidney disease. We talked about the kidney transplant waiting list and how some of our congregants have actually received kidneys. We also have people who have recently received heart transplants. So when we have teachable moments, we take full advantage of them and make sure people don’t just walk away with 15 seconds of information, but they walk away with a heartfelt story that will touch them. We also do blood drives and awareness campaigns around helping with the need to donate blood for our families who have children with sickle cell disease. You name it – if it’s important, especially in the African-American community in terms of a disease that we’re trying to fight – we definitely focus on those things.

BFT: Do you believe that if we change the food we serve at church functions that this could serve as a motivational tool to eat better outside the church such as at home or dining out?

Dr. Walker: Absolutely. That’s exactly what we do. When Bishop talks about “ChurchFIT is not an event” –  it’s something that has formed part of a fabric of the institution in terms of our church. When we have church functions or events in the evening, we have healthy meals that are prepared for pastors after they preach. So we basically show them that it’s possible and that just because it’s healthy does not mean that it tastes bad.

We have amazing chefs that teach our congregants how to cook with the food that’s actually in their cupboards because you don’t always have to go to the store and buy something that’s completely foreign; you can prepare what you already have but just do it in a healthier way. Cut back on the salt; cut back on the butter. Use the healthier oil. Bake it instead of frying it. Grill it instead of frying it. Prepare salads, juices and smoothies that are healthy. So, it’s just really teaching people or giving people [healthier] alternatives. I’m a firm believer that people really do want to get healthy, so it is our job as the church to help. When you think about any huge movement that has taken place in our community, it started in the church. Church was the backbone in many of those movements back in the 60s, 70’s etc. In terms of disparities and healthcare issues that we see these days, the church has to be the backbone. When people go to church they’re expecting a word but they also seek guidance from the church. Often times it’s what their pastor says that they share with their doctors. That’s why it is so important to hear the messaging come straight from the pulpit. It’s also important to see the pastors actually operating within their own lives the things that they’re preaching and teaching from a health standpoint.

BFT: How young do you start to see certain conditions in children, like a predisposition obesity or diabetes, that may point to family history or parent’s issues?

Dr. Walker: That’s an excellent question. They’re doing a lot of studies in pediatrics regarding that very thing. They are definitely showing that there are long-term impacts in terms of what our kids are doing and what they look like as adults, which is why it’s so important because people don’t really take childhood obesity seriously. But for many of these kids, if they’re obese as children, they’re going to end up being obese teenagers, which turn into obese adults. And that’s why we’re starting to see things like type 2 diabetes, which used to be seen in older adults but now you’re starting to see type 2 diabetes in kids!

Health is not just when you go the doctor, health is not just when you call your doctor and tell him that you’re sick or that you have a cold. Health is something that you need to be aware of and think about on a daily basis; a part of the everyday conversation, just not at critical intervals when you’re sick. Because by the time you’re sick, you’re really sick. If you have to go to the hospital because your blood pressure is high, guess what? Your blood pressure has probably been high for years. So just helping people understand the truth that just because you’re feeling good doesn’t mean that you’re healthy. There are so many silent killers. If you don’t know why your hands are aching or why you’re having headaches, go to the doctor. We teach people to ask questions and be proactive about their health.

Bishop_Walker_Dr_Stephaine_Walker_2BFT: In your own day-to-day lives, how do you balance your schedules and passions with healthy living or living a healthy lifestyle?

Bishop Walker: Our schedules are incredibly hectic and I think that it’s really about being very dedicated and carving out time. As my wife indicated, we travel a lot so we find hotels that have nice gyms or we take things with us, simple things, so that we can work out. When you preach three or four times a week it’s just something you have to do. I think that it’s really about being intentional. It’s about really saying “yes life is stressful and all those things” but unless you carve this time out, it can get away from you. And so it’s really about understanding how important that area of your life is and to guard it at all costs, protect it and create opportunities to exercise.

BFT: What are your favorite healthy foods and meals?

Bishop Walker: We’re creatures of habit. I like things like kale, with grilled salmon or grilled chicken — prepared with some flavor — a baked potato and vegetables or brown rice and I’m good! I’m pretty much a salmon or baked chicken kind of guy, and I love berries! So raspberries, blackberries, strawberries – I will just go for those all day long. I like some pastas as well — our chef prepares turkey pasta or something to that nature.

Dr. Walker: I’m similar to Bishop. I really enjoy foods like grilled tilapia. I’ll eat salmon like he mentioned, and I love really good, well-seasoned seafood on top of a salad.

BFT: Now, when you all have a chance to kind of relax and have that so-called “cheat meal” or just a chance to indulge a little bit, what is it that you go to?

Dr. Walker: For me, it would include macaroni and cheese. And if there’s no macaroni and cheese around, I’m from Los Angeles originally, so anything with a Mexican flair, like tacos, burritos or something like that.

Bishop Walker: My cheat meal would probably be going to Chick-fil-A and getting a grilled chicken sandwich and some waffle fries.

BFT: How do we make something like ChurchFIT becomes a staple in the African-American church? How does this become a new standard?

Bishop Walker: Well, I think what we’ve been very blessed to have a ministry that supports, has some resources and the platform to elevate the production and really capture the attention of other churches to take health and fitness seriously and make it a priority. My wife and I represent a different dynamic for a pastor and a first lady, particularly in international reformation. We’re able to influence thousands of churches and millions of people with an agenda that includes health as one of the pillars. We really are able to effect change at the full gospel level within the Kingdom worldwide. It’s something we are very passionate about advocating. Every time that we can talk about we do, we know full gospel is a part of the shift in healthy lifestyle living and others watching see that.

BFT: Have people reached out to you to say “Hey! Bishop Walker, Dr. Walker, how can we do something like this at our church?”

Dr. Walker: Yeah. Definitely. We’re actually in the process of putting together what we call a “toolkit” in order to help other churches, ministries or programs understand what we have done at Mount Zion. Our goal is to create a fairly in-depth toolkit. One of the things we’re not selfish with is information. It’s not ours. It’s for the people. And I think you often times run into that when it comes to research and grants. Things like that, in terms of people being very protective – which is understandable – but with ChurchFIT it’s an open book. You want our information; we’re more than willing to tell you exactly how we did it. Our goal is to try to figure out “ff this is how we did it, then possibly you can try to implement it in your organization or in your church in this way.” But you may need to make some changes because it can’t be cookie cutter. Your needs may be totally different than ours and that’s okay but we can definitely help you figure out a way to make it work for you.

BFT: What are your plans for the future with ChurchFIT?

Dr. Walker: Our goal is to continue to expand, continue to add more classes, continue to branch out in the community in terms of expanding to Full Gospel Churches all over the country, expanding to local churches across the state and internationally. Clearly, we would hope to attract sponsorship to work the programs because again, Mount Zion is doing it but we’re doing it all for free. It doesn’t cost anyone a dime. We know that the real cost of exercise programs can be the thing that’s prohibitive for people in terms of being able to get into shape and being able to reach their health goals. And so, one of our major goals would be to show people “Hey! This really works, come aboard,” and sponsor some of our programming so that we can reach even more people.

Want to know more? Visit Mt. Zion’s website for all things ChurchFIT!

Ilen & Lauren Bell are the husband and wife team behind Black Fitness Today, born, in 2011, out of their motivation to change culture, build a platform and lead the charge. Their purpose is to help change the culture towards health and fitness in the African-American community, showcase those who are making an impact, and promote healthier living. They also aim to serve as a platform for African-American fitness and health professionals and enthusiasts who are otherwise overlooked in traditional fitness media.

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Episode 5: The REAL Bow – Dr. Rainbow Barris

On ‘Black-ish’ Success, Marriage, Motherhood and Living Healthy Her Way!

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We had the great pleasure to chat with The REAL Bow – Dr. Rainbow Barris for episode 5! Click on the link in this article to listen! And, read on to see more info on your chance to enter to win a copy of her brand new book!

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In this episode, we get right into our interview with Dr. Rainbow Barris, who is the inspiration behind the character Rainbow Johnson on ABCs hit show ‘Black-ish’ and author of Keeping Up With the Johnson’s – Bow’s Guide to Black-ish Parenting. It’s hard enough to maintain a healthy lifestyle period – let alone as wife of director and writer Kenya Barris, being a medical doctor and raising six children! But Barris has found what works for her and wants to encourage other women balancing family and career to find what works uniquely for them! Plus, we talk about the show, Mr. & Mrs. Barris’ recent $1 million donation to Clark Atlanta University, and what life is like for her now. Don’t miss this!

Beginning Friday, June 29th – you’ll be able to enter to win a copy of Barris’ book! Stay tuned to our website, and Facebook and Instagram pages.

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Episode 4: Leah Uko – Journalist on Fox 11 Los Angeles + Bodybuilder

Los Angeles area native Leah Uko is back home working as a nightside reporter, as seen on Fox 11 Los Angeles. But she’s also a bodybuilder preparing to step on stage again this fall. Learn more about her journey, why she loves to bear arms on camera, and why discipline and journaling keep her motivated and determined to reach her goals.

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CrossFit Inc Global Branding Manager Talks with Black Fitness Today Ahead of Manion-WOD to Honor Fallen Hero

Ilen Bell, MS, CSCS, Co-Founder of Black Fitness Today

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Manion WOD events will be occurring at CrossFit gyms across the United States on Sunday, April 29, 2018. Times vary by location. Proceeds from each event will go towards TMF veteran initiatives such as TMF veteran expeditions, veteran-empowerment programs, and scholarships.

 

On April 29th, CrossFit gyms across the country will recognize the sacrifice of 1stLT Travis Manion and complete the Manion-Workout of the Day (WOD) to benefit Travis Manion Foundation (TMF) veteran initiatives such as TMF veteran expeditions, veteran-empowerment programs, and scholarships.

Read our interview with CrossFit Global Branding Manager, Jimi Letchford, and TMF President and Sister of Travis Manion, Ryan Manion.

Who was 1stLT Travis Manion?

Ryan: Travis was my best friend, and younger brother by 15 months. Even though I was the older sibling, I looked up to Travis in many ways because he always set the example. Travis was a high character person even from a young age, and when he saw something wrong, he would stand up. He was an all-league standout in wrestling, football and lacrosse, a member of five championship teams, and an All-American wrestler. Travis was best known as a motivating and popular figure to his classmates. This combination of leadership, athleticism, and academic achievement opened the door to his appointment to the United States Naval Academy.

After graduating from USNA, he decided to follow in our father’s footsteps and was awarded a commission into the United States Marine Corps. After finishing at the top of his class at The Basic School in Quantico, VA, Travis was assigned to 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, I Marine Expeditionary Force, with whom he deployed to Iraq for his first tour of duty. On April 29, 2007 during his second tour of duty in Iraq Travis, his fellow Marines and Iraqi Army counterparts were ambushed. Leading the counterattack against the enemy forces, Travis was fatally wounded by an enemy sniper while aiding and drawing fire away from his wounded teammates. Travis Manion paid the ultimate sacrifice that day, but his selfless actions allowed every member of his patrol to survive.

 

How does CrossFit serve as a vehicle for honoring heroes like 1stLT Travis Manion, who paid the ultimate sacrifice?

Jimi: Every day, millions of people engage in CrossFit workouts around the world. Our Workouts of the Day (aka WODs) are constantly varied, (relatively) high intensity, functional movement challenges that are intended to elicit physical and mental responses like no other workout regimen. The CrossFit program may not be for everyone, but it is for anyone.

Our Hero WODs are a different breed. They’re intended to take you to your limit. It’s up to the athlete to decide whether they’ll push past this limit. During this process, we honor the Hero(es) in which the workout was named. The men and women we honor through these WODs have amazing stories of character and bravery, and knowing about their legacy pushes us to go even further than we thought possible.

CrossFit has closely aligned its core values with that of the military. Why might CrossFit be something veterans want to give a try?

Jimi: CrossFit has a very tight-knit community, and a great sense of camaraderie among participants. When veterans join a CrossFit gym, they often find that camaraderie very similar to what they experience while in service to our Country. The idea that you belong to something bigger than yourself can often be lost while transitioning out of the military to civilian life. Like the military, there’s also a competitive nature to CrossFit. That friendly competition is something many veterans continue to look for in the next chapter of their life, and CrossFit is a great way to fill that void.

“If Not Me, Then Who…” is a question that has come to shape 1stLT Manion’s legacy. How is TMF and CrossFit answering this question?

Ryan: “If Not Me, Then Who…” isn’t actually a question, it’s a mantra that Travis lived by every day, and we’re inspiring future generations to put that mantra into action within their own lives. Just before Travis left for his second deployment to Iraq, he attended a football game with my husband Dave, and while they were leaving the stadium, Dave said to Travis “How about I push you down the steps so you break your ankle, and you won’t have to go back?” Travis looked at Dave very serious, and simply replied “If Not Me, Then Who…” He went on to explain that if he didn’t go back, someone less prepared would have to go in his place. This is the way Travis approached everything in his life, even from an early age. Those words have grown into a national movement that is inspiring hundreds of thousands of people to be of service to their own communities, and to be part of something bigger than themselves.  

Jimi: Travis was as true a friend as you could ever find. He always looked out for others, and often times would even thank me for pushing him to work harder. He was also a fierce competitor, and would never cut corners. His mantra of “If Not Me, Then Who…” really does represent how selfless Travis was. To me, Travis is representative of all the other Heroes that our Nation, and CrossFit community, have lost. So, I’d like to tell anyone that will be honoring Travis (or whoever else they’ll be honoring this weekend) to do so with the utmost integrity to the workout standards. Remember that those we honor through our Hero WODs paid the ultimate sacrifice in their line of duty. It is now our duty to never forget them. “If Not Me, Then Who…”

How does CrossFit motivate its members to collectively complete intense WODs sometimes named in honor of fallen military and first responders whom the members have no personal connection?

Jimi: The people that walk into our CrossFit boxes are people that recognize that only hard work will achieve health and wellness. CrossFitters don’t believe that there is a ‘magic pill’ for fitness. It turns out that this psychographic also tends to be very altruistic and humble. As a CrossFit community, all we have to do is tell the story of the fallen Hero, how it may relate to the workout, and the rest just happens. For example, the “Manion” Hero WOD is extremely leg intensive. We know from our relationship with Travis that he always had the strongest legs of anyone on our team. So, Travis’ workout consists of a 400 meter run and 29 back squats (135lbs), done over 7 rounds. The numbers are somewhat poetic; Travis was killed 4/29/07.

Manion WOD events will be occurring at CrossFit gyms across the United States on Sunday, April 29, 2018. Times vary by location. Proceeds from each event will go towards TMF veteran initiatives such as TMF veteran expeditions, veteran-empowerment programs, and scholarships.

How can people exemplify Travis’ character and sacrifice beyond the four walls of a CrossFit box where many join together once a year to complete a WOD honoring Travis’ legacy?

Ryan: Get involved in your own community. Look for your passion and a purpose, and wake up with determination to make a difference in the world every day, no matter how small. Live by “If Not Me, Then Who…” and look for those opportunities that present themselves each and every day that you can be the best version of yourself, and take advantage of them.

What communities does TMF serve?

Ryan: We currently have offices in 8 cities across the country, which include: Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, New York, Philadelphia, Raleigh, San Diego, Seattle, and Washington D.C. However our impact and opportunities for involvement are nationwide.

How does the Travis Manion Foundation ensure that children of fallen heroes are not left behind?

We work closely with families of the fallen, and specifically organize service expeditions for survivors. These expeditions allow family members of fallen military to spend time with others who can relate to their journey, while providing them an opportunity to carry on their loved one’s legacy by being of service to a community in need. We host 8-10 domestic or international expedition each year, and one such expedition is specifically for teens who have lost a parent or sibling in service to our country. These young adults learn that while their loved one may be gone, they can honor their memory and carry on their legacy through the actions they take each and every day.

Where can people find information on joining or volunteering with TMF?

Ryan: Anyone can join the mission by visiting travismanion.org. We have volunteer and engagement opportunities throughout the year, which includes our Operation Legacy service projects and the 9/11 Heroes Run 5K series.

What do you want people to know most about Travis?

Ryan: Travis always challenged himself to be the best person he could, and he did that by focusing on being big in the little things. Because of that, he was prepared when bigger challenges arose. The legacy that Travis left behind, and for that matter all our fallen heroes, is one that we all have a responsibility to carry on. The way that we do that is by look towards the character they lived with, and challenging ourselves to think about how we can be the best version of ourselves – because “If Not Me, Then Who…”

 

 

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