‘Fit-4-Life’: Health, wellness and the Holy Spirit

By: David Ibata

Amy Ely credits the “Fit-4-Life” program at the Kroc Center in Kerrville, Texas, with connecting her to community and disciplining her to work out and stay healthy. And losing 50 pounds.

“I love The Salvation Army Kroc Center,” Ely said. “I love this program. It holds you accountable.”

The Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Kerrville created a unique fitness program, Fit-4-Life, to reach people for Jesus Christ and to encourage them to pursue a healthy lifestyle. It targets those at greatest risk of heart disease with a four-part program that addresses their physical, spiritual and mental health needs as well as giving them an opportunity to help others.

Ely was diagnosed in 2016 as seriously overweight and with high blood pressure, and she suffered from intestinal problems.

“I just felt physically horrible,” she said.

Fit-4-Life was an eye opener. It demanded a commitment on the part of its enrollees – chief among them, mandatory sessions at the gym.

“Exercise is my least favorite thing in the world to do,” Ely said. “The only way I knew I was going to go and exercise was because I had to, to stay in the program.”

Ely successfully completed Fit-4-Life, graduated and today feels better than ever. She lost weight, no longer takes blood pressure medicine, and ran a Kroc 5K last fall. She continues to work out at least three days a week, “because a trainer is there waiting for me.”

And by being part of the “Dirty Feet” crew – Fit-4-Life enrollees who volunteer for service projects – “I ended up falling in love with all the folks at The Salvation Army’s shelter and kitchen. It’s something I love to do. I place a huge value on being part of the community at The Salvation Army.”

The idea for Fit-4-Life came to Captain Bobby Jackson, then Kerrville corps officer, from a sign promoting local gym memberships: “Fit 4 Life.”

“It sparked an idea, that we ought to do something with the four areas of fitness,” said Lance Wilke, fitness and wellness coordinator and director of human performance at the Kerrville Kroc Center.

To be enrolled in the program, one must show at least two American College of Sports Medicine risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.

Fit-4-Life is a year-long commitment. It’s divided into three cycles: “Active” (first four months), “Tether” (middle four months – the participant has established a pattern of working out and is now responsible for continuing mostly unsupervised); and “Active” (last four months).

Incentives include eight months of free Kroc Center membership worth $41 a month for gym privileges; and 32 hours of individual sessions with a personal fitness trainer, worth $50 per hour. Those dollar amounts translate to $311 the first month and $2,100 over 12 months. Those who successfully complete the Fit-4-Life Above and Beyond requirements are eligible for half-priced Kroc Center memberships the rest of their lives.

Fit-4-Life had its first class with 18 people in September 2014. Since then, 112 people have started the program, achieving a collective weight loss of at least 900 pounds. Forty-one attained their goals and graduated.

Only a certain number of participants can be accepted per cycle. One can drop out without penalty during the first month. After that, if someone leaves without a good reason like a medical emergency, their credit card is assessed $100 to compensate for the time slot lost. “We’ve scared people with that,” Wilke said. “We’ve never actually had to initiate that fee.”

“Kroc Fit,” the physical fitness part of Fit-4-Life, evaluates a client’s condition and assigns weight loss and body fat goals. The enrollee must log a certain number of hours per month working out individually and meeting with a personal trainer. Those who fall short of their workout hours cannot continue; nor can a person advance to the next cycle until meeting a percentage of the goals.

“That’s the biggest time commitment,” Wilke said. “The requirements are pretty stringent.”

The program’s spiritual aspect calls for attendance at classes on “The Daniel Plan” by Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in California and author of “The Purpose Driven Life” and other books. (For more information: www.danielplan.com)

“It’s a great introduction to the Christian faith for people who may not know a whole lot about it or are put off by it,” Wilke said. “It talks about God’s love and abundance and how we as Christians should view our bodies as temples to him – that if we can take better care of our bodies, we’re able to be used by God at greater levels and for greater things.”

The mental component is based on the Bible teaching “that we are transformed by the renewing of our minds,” according to a program flyer. A client can attend “Lunch and Learn” meetings where guest speakers – typically doctors, dietitians and therapists – address various aspects of health and wellness; or they can do book reports of the Daniel Plan or from a recommended reading list.

The fourth part of Fit-4-Life is “Dirty Feet.” It’s inspired by two Scripture passages: Matthew 25:34-40: “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me”; and John 13:15-17: “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you should also wash one another’s feet.”

“There are a lot of areas – not just the Kroc Center, but the thrift store and social services – that need volunteers,” Wilke said. “We thought if we could get people plugged into the Boys & Girls Club, sports leagues, dinner nights at the shelter, filling grocery bags for the hungry, we could show our community the scope of what The Salvation Army does.”

When another Fit-4-Life graduate, David Whitney, started with the program in 2014, he had high blood pressure and diabetes exacerbated by excess weight.

Today, Whitney has lost more than 140 pounds and is holding steady at 260 pounds. He’s replaced fatty and fast foods with fruits and salads, and he works out six days a week at the Kroc Center.

Whitney also has volunteered – helping with a river clean-up, delivering Thanksgiving meals, handing out children’s gifts at an Angel Tree party and other activities.

“I feel real good,” he said. “I’m still taking a pill, but I’ve cut out probably 75 percent of the medicine I was taking when I started the program. My weight’s down, and my blood pressure’s down. I’ve had two hip replacements, and the exercise helped me get my life back quicker.”

A doctor, he said, told him his lifestyle changes “probably added 30 years to my life.”

Yet even more important than physical well-being is one’s spiritual health.

“I tell people at our orientation through this medium of wellness and health, we want them to experience Christ’s love at a deeper level,” Wilke said. “My goal is for you to draw closer to Christ as a result of this. I’m not a pastor or preacher. My job is to expose people to what the Gospel says about wellness and health, and let the Holy Spirit do the rest.

“It’s very much a ministry. We just use a slightly different medium.”