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Faith and Fitness

After being laid off, I embarked on a spiritual journey to merge exercise and prayer.

Jimmy Peña

For some of you, the idea of sandwiching fitness into an already busy lifestyle might feel like running a marathon up Mount Everest.

Well, I’m an exercise physiologist and a longtime fitness writer, and I’ve even had the privilege of working with celebrities such as LL Cool J, movie director Tyler Perry and TV star Mario Lopez. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that being healthy and fit is a daily decision. All my life I wanted to help people make good decisions about their health and their bodies. For years, though, I had no idea how to go about it. And then, one day, it came to me. I haven’t looked back since.

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I played baseball in high school and college until one summer day when I tore up my ankle playing in a church softball league. I returned to school in a cast and in doubt about my future. But while I rehabbed my ankle, something happened. I fell in love with how the body worked and responded to training. The recuperation process was exhilarating. So much so that I never saw another pitch. I hung up my cleats and picked up weights.

I majored in business and after graduation landed a job selling insurance. I use the term “selling” loosely. One evening my fiancée, Loretta, and I were out to dinner with some friends when I looked out the window and saw a physical therapy clinic across the street. “You know what I’d do if I could pick any job?” I said out of the blue, pointing toward the clinic.

“That’s what I’d do, something that involves helping people and their bodies. I wouldn’t be selling insurance.” My friends laughed. “You’re not selling much insurance as it is.” They were right about that! Later, Loretta and I talked it over and I decided to go back to school for a graduate degree in clinical exercise physiology.

I wrote my master’s thesis on how endurance training and diet affect muscle and performance. I presented my research at the annual American College of Sports Medicine Conference. The moment I finished my presentation a small team approached me. “We’re from Muscle & Fitness magazine,” they said. I just about fell over. Muscle & Fitness is one of the world’s premiere bodybuilding magazines, founded by bodybuilding legend Joe Weider. “Your thesis is fascinating,” the guys said. “How would you like to do some freelance writing for us?” Of course I said yes!

Month after month my articles appeared on newsstands. Six years after I wrote my first freelance piece, I became fitness director for Muscle & Fitness at the magazine’s Los Angeles offices. Soon I was doing more than writing and editing articles and overseeing photo shoots. I was blessed to be asked first by LL Cool J and later by Mario Lopez to help write their fitness and diet books. Tyler Perry hired me as a consultant. My prayer had been to work in the fitness world and here I was sitting at the very top of it.

At least it should have felt that way. But I found myself increasingly restless at work. Although everyone in the office around me was working to promote health and wellness, I felt a strange hollowness. I would sit in my office and wonder, Am I helping people achieve abundant health or am I just helping guys get bigger biceps? I knew I could do more. But what?

Late one night I was in my office at Muscle & Fitness, editing an article on a tight deadline when I heard a noise from across the indoor atrium. It was Joe Weider leaving his office for the night. By that point Joe was in his eighties and needed a walker and the help of a nurse to get around. I watched as he made his way down the hall and passed directly in front of a bronze statue of himself in his prime—arms folded, chest puffed, chin high. There was no resemblance between the bronze Joe Weider and the elderly man beside it.

It was like seeing the bookends of a man’s life. The sight caused me to sit back in my chair. All of a sudden I realized what had been troubling me at work. It’s not about the body, I thought. I remembered something C. S. Lewis once wrote: “You don’t have a soul, you are a soul. You have a body.” And every body, even the fittest, eventually runs down. Exercise not directed toward God, like any other activity pursued apart from him, ends up being unful­filling. The point of fitness isn’t physi­cal perfection. It’s taking care of this body given to us by God just as we treasure all the rest of his gifts. My dream became clear. I wanted to mesh faith and fitness.

Right away I told a few colleagues about my revelation. “I want to write a fitness devotional,” I said to Jim Stoppani, science editor for Muscle & Fitness. I also told my buddy Eric Velazquez, a senior writer. And I called Jimmy Page, a vice president at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Everyone agreed it was a great idea.

Over the next couple of years the four of us tossed around ideas for a book that would combine everything we knew about fitness with everything we felt about faith. We prayed for the Lord to open doors for our new venture.

One January day a delegation arrived at the magazine’s office from corporate headquarters. Because of the recession a quarter of us had to be laid off, myself and Eric included. Ten years after writing my first article for Joe Weider, I wrote my last. As I shook the hands of those remaining behind at work, I actually felt excited. At last God had provided an opportunity to work on my faith and fitness dream.

The very next day Eric and I started the website PrayFit.com. At first we posted fitness devotionals that I wrote and Eric edited, explaining how exercise forms a crucial component of a life of faith. Soon we were including easy workouts for busy people who either didn’t have time to exercise or for those who simply wanted a good dose of motivation before they started their day. We designed the exercises so they could be done in the comfort of someone’s living room in as little as 15 minutes a few times a week, no special equipment required. We paired the workouts with Bible verses and encouragements to make exercise part of a deeper program of personal and spiritual change. We added some recipes for healthy, energy-boosting meals. Eventually, the devotional caught on and before we knew it we had a contract to write a book.

Today PrayFit is my work, a book, my way of life and my answer to God’s call. You might wonder whether a fitness expert can really relate to everyday people’s struggle to exercise. Well, I recently had spinal surgery and now I don’t do even half the training and lifting I used to. I mostly swim and ride my bike. Most important, I know why I exercise, and why I do my best to help others get fit too. Our bodies are a precious gift from God. We live better, we love better, we serve better when we honor that gift. When you look at it that way, it’s not a question of how to climb Everest, but why we should try.

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