TREND: ORGANIZED RELIGION JUMPS INTO WELLNESS
More religious organizations and ministry leaders are incorporating a wide range of health and fitness modalities—from Ramadan bootcamps to Catholic Pilates classes.
By Rina Raphael
Millennials often refer to their gym as “church,” and now that could be taken literally. A growing number of religious institutions, nonprofit organizations and ministry leaders are incorporating a wide range of health and fitness modalities. Current wellness offerings include Ramadan bootcamps, Jewish Sabbath service hikes, Christian wellness retreats, Catholic Pilates classes and Muslim fitness YouTube channels.
Many religious communities start with one-off events, such as aerobics classes that integrate sermons or prayer (though some go so far as to build entire fitness equipment rooms). Rabbi Jaymee Alpert of Congregation Beth David in Saratoga, California, developed a practice that blends strength training into a traditional Jewish worship service. The lunge-heavy session is now a monthly offering, along with yoga sessions, drawing on themes from the liturgy and forest-bathing prayer programs.
Alpert took inspiration from the growing popularity of running therapy, a physically demanding sport that some counselors say help patients better open up and access their emotions.
“The goal is to help people reconnect the parts of ourselves that we usually think are so separate,” explains Alpert. “Either we’re at the gym being physical, or we’re coming to the synagogue to be spiritual. But there’s a connection there.”
There are also gym concepts entirely devoted to spiritual exercise. SoulCore, a Catholic-based movement program that pairs stretching and functional movement with the prayers of the rosary, now counts more than 100 parishes across the US.
Faithful Workouts is an online Christian ministry of streaming workouts infused with mini-sermons and Christian music. Founder Michelle Spadafora says her clients, the majority of them women, are tired of separating lifestyle from faith. Consider it a holier take on multitasking.
In the last year, a significant number of churches requested Faithful Workouts’ integrated classes, signifying a shift away from viewing bodywork as vanity.
“There’s been a mind change within the Christian community that we need to take care of our bodies,” says Spadafora. Christians are the largest religious group, making up nearly a third of the Earth’s population.
Other entrepreneurs opt for a faith-centric franchise model, as evidenced by CrossFit F.M.S. (which stands for “For My Savior”) in Midland, Texas, and CrossFit 27:17 (a nod to Proverbs) in Flowood, Mississippi. Females in Action (FIA), a free and peer-led, bootcamp-style workout program for women, finishes each workout with a prayer. In just six years, FIA has grown to more than 6,000 members, encompassing 53 regional groups across the US.
A select portion of boutique fitness studios establish a more comfortable setting for those living within religious constraints: The women-only Nawal Haddad gym in Singapore offers hijab-friendly exercise classes, while Jerusalem’s Kosher Gym caters to observant Jewish men with evening prayers and a strictly kosher café.
Religion and bodywork have long been associated. At the 2019 Global Wellness Summit in Singapore, theologian Martin Palmer stressed the strong relationship between wellness and faith, noting the body-soul connection inherent in religious texts and traditions. This is evidenced by monastic diets, spiritual bouts of fasting, physically demanding pilgrimages and ritual bathing. He quoted the apostle Paul: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? Therefore honor God with your body.”
Roughly 84 percent of the world’s population identifies with a religious group, and nearly every faith in some way exalts not only the body’s capabilities but mankind’s duty to maintain good health.
Forecasting the Future
- The first chapter of religions offering more fitness/wellness programming involved independent churches. But more national religious organizations and influential leaders will embrace it—even getting into wellness travel. And they will reach bigger audiences through digital platforms, a trend being accelerated by COVID-19, where churches are streaming “faith and fitness.”
- Faith and spirituality are in a strange, paradoxical place. More people reject traditional religion, just as spiritualities of all kinds surge (and under the umbrella of wellness, whether shamans, astrology or chakra balancing). This traditional religion versus “wellness spirituality” polarity will increasingly get interrogated and ultimately less rigid.
- COVID-19 means more people are turning to prayer, spirituality and faith—and this will persist post-pandemic. People will be desperate for physical communities (whether churches or wellness centers) where mind, body AND spirit get equal attention. Smart religions and smart wellness businesses will minister to all three.
This is an excerpt from the “Organized Religion Jumps into Wellness” trend in the 2020 Global Wellness Trends Report.