Gospel Fitness Comes to a Church Near You

When Dawn Harvey leans back on her elbows, legs outstretched, rapidly pedaling, she's not just toning her abs—she's kicking Satan in the head. And when she and her Camp Springs, Md., aerobics class of 12 women stretch their palms to the sky, pumping them upward in cadence, it's not just for their triceps' benefit—it's a come-hither to their celestial inheritance. "Don't think about the pain—think about how much you love him!" screams instructor Melanie Kelly, over organ-trilling gospel music. "Y'all better praise!" This is gospel aerobics, the answer to your prayers if you're feeling feeble in body or flimsy in soul. It's hymn-singing, shoulder-bobbing, one heck of a workout—and it's happening in a musty church basement near you.

Praise with push-ups has been possible at boutique gyms like Crunch for some time. But the point is mostly kitsch, not message. So churchgoers are bringing gospel back home, to the fellowship halls of at least 100 parishes in largely minority communities nationwide. Participants say the classes are important for black women, a group that struggles with obesity. They can't hurt the soul, either: studies show a correlation between prayer and good mental health. At Gospelcize Kick, a Uniondale, N.Y., "exercise ministry" run out of a local parish, members even get a little extra: Scripture, a faithfitness newsletter and recipes. "Nothing to me inspires like gospel music," says Kelly, a 35-year-old systems analyst who holds class on the carpeted floor of a one-room church. Amen—now where's the water fountain?