- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 28, 2002

Late on a Tuesday evening, two dozen women trickle into a church in Burtonsville, gym bags tucked under arms.They are young, middle-aged and older. There are housewives, lawyers, a social worker and a police officer. Christians, Jews, Hindus and even nonbelievers. For about 90 minutes, however, the differences blur as they join hands in prayer, then scatter around the room, bodies swaying in aerobic exercise to the beat of Christian music.

This class at New Hope Seventh Day Adventist Church combines religion with exercise. It is led by Abby Dixson, 45, a small blond woman who has been a fitness instructor and a dancer as long as she can remember. Fifteen years ago, she volunteered as an instructor for Body and Soul Ministries, the group that first combined aerobics with popular Christian music two decades ago.

The experience, she says, has changed her life.

"I love to help people reach their fullest potential, to show them our bodies are temples. Jesus loves us and wants us to be well." She teaches four classes a week at the church, in addition to her own work as a personal trainer.

This is indeed an exercise class unlike any other. No slinky bodies in skin-tight leotards here rather, members are dressed in "modest, conservative exercise apparel," which translates into loose T-shirts and biking shorts or leggings.

Before each workout session, students join hands and form a circle to pray for each other and their loved ones. After class, they share stories of friends and family members who are in need of compassion, and pray for them.

As they lift weights, plie and punch the air, they sing along with the tape to the strains of songs with words such as "Jesus, you alone shall be my first love, my first love."

They also get fit.

Silver Spring resident Janice Church, 54, lost 100 pounds in the five years she has been a member of Body and Soul Aerobics. When she visited the Egyptian pyramids earlier this year, she says, she squatted through the low passages faster and better than her children.

Cynthia Tucker, 27, weighed 270 pounds when she joined two years ago. The College Park resident has since lost 90 pounds, making it possible to achieve a longtime dream.

"I have wanted to be a police officer since I was a little kid. Body and Soul got me in good enough shape to make it to class and be in the academy," she says.

Body and Soul Aerobics was the brainchild of Germantown residents Jeannie and Roy Blocher, who decided to start a nondenominational ministry to combine people's spiritual and physical needs through exercise. Workouts were crafted and set to upbeat Christian music that would help practitioners "grow in the understanding of spiritual things."

"It is about loving yourselves, loving who you are," Mrs. Dixson says.

The format has been so successful, she says, that 250 instructors in 33 states now teach Body and Soul exercise. Missionary teachers also offer it in eight other countries. Other local classes are offered in Silver Spring, Laurel, the District and Northern Virginia.

Most instructors are mothers and working women who teach several times a week to local churches. Each one is certified by the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit group that sets standards for fitness instructors.

Women form a big chunk of the participants in Mrs. Dixson's class, although hers is a coed group with a couple of men who regularly attend. The group, which meets twice a week, considers itself one big family.

"It helps to have a really supportive group of men and women. They think of you and worry about you," Mrs. Church says.

She is not a churchgoer herself, but says there is a spirituality about working out to Christian music that touches even her. "We all need some spirituality in our life," she says.

Holly Hursh, 24, joined because she wanted to lose weight, but found the thought of going to a regular gym scary. "It was intimidating to go to gyms where everybody knows what they are doing. But out here, I don't feel intimidated. I don't feel below everyone else's level."

Body and Soul Ministries is a nonprofit organization, but students pay a small fee to cover the costs of renting space and materials used for the workout. A 12-week session of one class a week costs $54, Mrs. Dixson says.

Members also get together outside of class, for brunches, picnics and charity walks, she says.

Debbie James of Silver Spring has been doing Body and Soul exercise for 19 years now, 15 of those with Mrs. Dixson's class. She says she used to go to another gym before and realized the words of the music she heard stuck in her head. Because she likes listening to Christian music, she decided to move over to Body and Soul workouts.

The exercise has gotten better with every passing year, she says. Instructors are on top of what is happening in the world of fitness, updating exercises every season and introducing the latest moves. Mrs. Dixson's class features guest speakers, including nutritionists, gynecologists, chiropractors and even a shoes expert.

A fit woman at 52, Mrs. James makes it a point to attend even after a long, tiring day at work.

"The exercise, the music, the laughter, the prayer I know it will make me feel better," she says.

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