Saints Worldwide Assemble Exercise Groups for Fitness, Friendship, and Fellowship

Contributed By Hannah DeTavis, LDS.org Church News staff writer

  • 27 April 2018

Participants in the Nampa Idaho South Stake fitness program work out together. Many members are finding that as they support one another in their health and exercise goals, they are also meeting each other’s spiritual and social needs.  Photo by Rita Merrik.

Article Highlights

  • Church exercise activities can promote better health, friendships, and missionary opportunities.

Three days a week, you can find Jenn Jacobs and a group of 50 other women dancing, lifting weights, and building enriching friendships during hour-long workouts at the Nampa South Stake meetinghouse in Idaho.

These women not only understand the health value of exercise but they are also answering the First Presidency’s call to minister to others.

In a First Presidency letter to worldwide membership, the First Presidency explains that “ministering is Christlike caring for others and helping meet their spiritual and temporal needs.”

Many members are finding that as they support one another in their health and exercise goals, they are also meeting each other’s spiritual and social needs.

“We have women participating who are of all religions, all shapes and sizes, all fitness levels, and who have all kinds of personal trials,” said Jacobs, the program director of Nampa South Stake Fitness.

What started as a small stake fitness group nine years ago has boomed into a large community exercise program.

Between the welcoming environment and the free childcare (each woman in the group takes a turn babysitting the participants’ children), women from Nampa and beyond are flocking to the LDS fitness group every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Women in the Nampa South Stake Fitness program pose for a picture. Photo by Rita Merrik.

And they’re not the only ones who have tapped into the fellowshipping power of exercise. Saints around the world are breaking the mold of weekday night basketball games to help unify their communities.

Although many of these fitness groups started as a means to stay in shape, they also help members to strengthen bonds within the Church, promote missionary opportunities, and engender Christlike ministering.

Whether it’s Zumba, CrossFit-style training, indoor soccer, yoga, or volleyball, members can benefit from the physical, spiritual, and social benefits of Church-assembled fitness groups.

Building muscle

“I believe that we have a duty to take care of our physical bodies because they are a house to our spirits,” said Jacobs. “That’s why the Lord gave us the Word of Wisdom, and that’s why He inspired this program in our stake.”

Deanna Turner from Aurora, Colorado, agrees. “For your spiritual needs to be met, your physical needs need to be met.”

Three mornings a week, Turner prepares workouts for “Zion’s Fitness,” a CrossFit-style exercise group open to members of the Aurora South Stake and their friends. Zion’s Fitness meets in the cultural hall of the stake center where people gather three mornings a week to exercise together using donated equipment.

The ongoing objective of Zion’s Fitness is to create a fun, noncompetitive environment for people of all different fitness levels to stay fit and healthy. High school kids, retired couples, members, and nonmembers are all welcome to socialize and enjoy a good workout. Better yet, they keep each other accountable to fitness goals.

The “Zion’s Fitness” group hosted by the Aurora South Stake in Colorado poses for a picture wearing group T-shirts and holding donated workout equipment. Photo by Deanna Turner.

“I love setting these workouts up because I get to serve so many people in the Church and in the community,” Turner commented. “That’s the most rewarding part—getting to see people reach their goals and feel healthy.”

Another member, Rafael Taylor from Baltimore, Maryland, participated in a similar weekly fitness activity. His Spanish branch (now reorganized) held indoor soccer games that attracted a large group inside and outside the Church who wanted to break a sweat while having fun. “There’s a reason we have a cultural hall in our churches,” Taylor said. “You can run around in there, use the basketball hoops, and put poles in the floor for a volleyball net. You can even play music and have dances! Initially, we started the soccer games to exercise, but it grew to be so much more,” he explained.

A Spanish branch in Baltimore, Maryland, invites friends and neighbors for an indoor soccer game. Photo by Rafael Taylor.

Building confidence

Many Church members have experienced social and spiritual blessings of regular exercise with their fellow ward members and others.

In the Nampa South Stake Fitness Group, Jacobs reported women blossoming from self-conscious, timid personalities into strong, confident individuals.

Referring to the hour-long workouts as their “healing time” or “power hour,” many women feel an emotional release during the cool-down portion of the session.

“There are so many people who suffer from depression, or have spouses who are addicted to pornography, or have lost a baby, or have lost a child to suicide,” Jacobs explained. “But exercise can be so mentally and emotionally healing—it’s a release—and I often see women crying as they stretch at the end.”

One woman in the classes shared, “I had just given birth to a full-term baby that we lost when I first started coming [to class]. That day, a sister in the nursery told me I wasn’t alone; she had experienced the same. … I love coming to class. I love asking [for] names over and over until I learn them. I love being in the nursery with the kids. I feel better in my own skin.”

Jacobs referenced a popular quote—“It’s a shame for a woman to grow old without seeing the strength of her own body”—and explained that she wants to help people challenge themselves physically, so over time, they can feel stronger and more confident.

It feels good to exercise and to reach your own fitness goals, said Turner. But it’s even better when you’re working hard as a group and encouraging each other to do and feel your best.

Building friendships

Saints everywhere are eager to “lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees” (D&C 81:5). One way that members can spiritually strengthen their brothers and sisters is by organizing an exercise activity that everyone can participate in.

Youth can reap the benefits of weekly exercise activities at a local Church building. Eighteen-year-old Hillary Valdés Ortiz from Pajapita, Guatemala, explained, “I like our branch soccer games because it’s good exercise for your body—it’s healthy—and I like to spend time with the other youth.”

Young men and young women in Pajapita, Guatemala, pose for a picture after playing soccer and socializing. Photo by Hillary Valdés Ortiz.

She also enjoys the spiritual benefits of playing sports in a wholesome environment. In her branch, each youth soccer game starts with a prayer and spiritual moment. From there, Church leaders gather all the teens together to explain the rules of the game. This helps everyone to practice good sportsmanship, develop friendships, and feel the Spirit.

Jacobs cited many unlikely friendships that have formed as a result of her stake’s fitness group. At one black light Zumba party, the program invited the young women, resulting in a total of 79 participants. This opportunity allowed women of all different ages and lifestyles to mingle.   

“You might see two women that you’d never expect to be friends, but as they work in the nursery together babysitting kids, or exercise together as partners because they’re at the same fitness level, they form a special bond.”

Jacobs also explained that on the Facebook page for Nampa South Stake Fitness, women buoy each other up with a “compliment chain,” where they offer kind, uplifting words to one another—further strengthening their sisterhood.

Zion’s Fitness has likewise promoted close friendships among ward members. “If someone is gone, we ask, ‘Where is so-and-so? We miss him!’” said Turner.

Building fellowship

Church-organized fitness groups also offer remarkable missionary opportunities.

Taylor explained that because soccer is a popular sport in the Spanish community, his branch used it as a missionary and activation tool.

“The missionaries would sometimes have a lesson before or after a game. It wasn’t a formal Sunday environment—it was more open. Members who came to play would reinforce what the missionaries taught and shared stories,” he explained.

“Because many members brought their whole family to these activities, many investigators, less-active members, or nonmembers started to bring their families to play.”

As members fellowshipped friends and neighbors at the indoor soccer games, many visitors opened their hearts to the gospel message and were baptized. Taylor’s family took one nonmember family they met at weekly soccer nights to the Washington D.C. Temple Visitors’ Center.

A group of young women in Pajapita, Guatemala, assemble for a soccer game. Photo by Hillary Valdés Ortiz.

“They felt the Spirit strongly that day and they really opened up, even though they were so against the idea of our church previously,” he said.

Ortiz experienced similar missionary success in Guatemala. She testified that “through simple things like playing a sport just to get exercise, people can really become motivated to listen to the message of the Church.” Although Ortiz’s busy schedule often keeps her from teaching with the full-time missionaries, she felt that she could still build the kingdom of God by inviting her friends to weekly athletic activities.

“Many youth were baptized after attending soccer games,” she added.

Turner described how one woman who began attending Zion’s Fitness made so many close friendships that she started inviting ward members to join soccer teams and train for various races. “With that fellowship, she’s been invited to a lot of Church activities,” Turner said.

Several years ago, Jacobs discovered that one woman who frequented the Nampa fitness program was suffering from abuse in her home. The woman, impressed by the cheerful, loving attitudes of Latter-day Saint women in the group, turned to them for help.

“After I finished teaching a class, I got on stage,” Jacobs explained. “I said, ‘Ladies, there’s someone who needs us, and we can help. If your budget allows, can we pitch in and get her a gift card for gas or groceries?’”

Within 20 minutes, the women of Nampa South Stake Fitness had accumulated $275 to help their new friend. When the woman in need received the donation, she was filled with emotion. “You guys saved me,” she said.

As members consider the prophetic call to minister to their brothers and sisters, they can look to the examples of Saints around the world who unify their branches, wards, stakes, or communities through exercise groups.

Taylor commented, “We as members can invite people out to activities that don’t necessarily need to be in the chapel. Just keep inviting others, because you never know when someone will say yes.”

“There’s a reason we have a cultural hall in our churches,” said Rafael Taylor, who helped organize fitness activities in his Spanish branch in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo by Rafael Taylor.

Families in a Baltimore, Maryland, gather at a local LDS meetinghouse for outdoor activities, including a three-legged race. Photo by Rafael Taylor.

Each woman in the Nampa South Stake Fitness program takes her turn babysitting the children of other participants. Three volunteers are always present in the nursery. Photo by Rita Merrik.

Many women at Nampa South Stake Fitness refer to their hour-long workouts as their “healing time” or “power hour.” Photo by Rita Merrik.

Participants in the Nampa South Stake Fitness program build friendships as they build muscle. Photo by Rita Merrik.

Participants in the Nampa South Stake Fitness program build friendships as they build muscle. Photo by Rita Merrik.