Fitness program with spiritual element added


As a parish nurse at Mary Queen of Peace in Mandeville, Valerie Englehardt, RN, strives to improve the health of parishioners. Three years ago, a health survey she conducted revealed being overweight as the major issue parishioners wanted to tackle.

She was confident to give nutrition advice but hesitant to address fitness. Knowing she wanted to fuse both with spirituality into a health program, she prayed for help.

A few weeks later, parishioner Becki Leedy came knocking on her door offering her talents as a physical therapist. 

“We believe the Holy Spirit was involved with us getting together,” Leedy said.

An unexpected friendship blossomed as the two spent eight months developing “Three-Way Fitness,” a Christ-centered wellness program.

“It’s spiritual health and emotional health in addition to fitness,” said Englehardt, who has 23 years’ clinical experience as a nurse. 

“This is not a diet – I want you to erase that word from your head,” Englehardt told approximately 15 participants Aug. 22 at the most recent 12-week session. “This is a lifestyle change.” 

Since the first fall class debuted in the spring of 2010, 52 individuals have completed the program and learned how to improve their overall health.

‘Three-Way Fitness’ focus

Each weekly class incorporates Scripture readings, meditation, and a behavioral focus with nutrition, weight management, 

stress tips and exercise. Englehardt said she devised 10 behavioral focuses based on the life of Christ. For example, if the importance of water in the diet is discussed, a Scripture reading on water, such as the woman at the well or Jesus coming out of the desert needing water, is read.Participants keep a binder of handouts with exercises, recipes, Scripture readings and a DVD. They are asked to eat three meals a day and two snacks and to record their meal and calorie intake.

“Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper,” Englehardt advises. “We want to learn to keep blood sugar stable so you don’t have these highs and lows.”

Englehardt mentioned three main weight factors – heredity, diet and sedentary lifestyle. She recommended that individuals add more natural fruits and grains to their diets and avoid processed foods filled with sodium and sugar. 

“There are no forbidden foods,” Englehardt said. “We will teach you how to modify those cravings and incorporate them into the way you eat to maintain a healthy weight. You have to make a conscious, intelligent choice that is sustained through prayer.”

Keeping track of what is eaten helps people realize they can compensate if they eat an extra piece of chocolate.

By doing that, participant Judy Gaiennie discovered that a glass of wine was 150 calories.

“It’s not really about weight,” Gaiennie said. “I’ve had cancer two times and I want to be healthy. The weight loss is a benefit of it, but it’s a healthy way of looking at life. They deal with body, mind and spirit. The Bible will give us the strength to accomplish our goals.”

Participants also record their daily exercise and use a pedometer to count how close they were to achieving the 10,000 steps recommended daily. At each class, they are weighed and their blood pressure is taken.

“Hopefully, we give them all the tools they need,” Englehardt said.

Proven success

Harold and Sandy Hinrichs said the 12-week program put them in charge of their lives. They learned to walk more, eat better and become healthier. Harold Hinrichs was able to reduce his medication from 14 pills to eight. The Hinrichs were on hand to challenge others in changing their lifestyle.

“I learned how to eat again,” Harold Hinrichs, a diabetic, said. “I lost a total of 40 pounds so far, but 29 pounds during the 12-week course.” 

“Faith keeps you strong in order to stay motivated to make the right decisions,” said Harold Hinrichs, giving the example of how he resisted the temptation to  grab a donut at a recent church function. “We learned that by eating too much of the wrong things, you can gain wait. You can eat anything in moderation.” 

Sandy lost 20 pounds during the course and 28 pounds overall.

“We have completely changed our lifestyle,” she said.

Leedy instructs the fitness hour of the class. On Aug. 22, basic posture was the focus. Aerobics, flexibility and strengthening exercises are incorporated later.

“Who would like to lose three pounds in three seconds,” Leedy asked, joking that they were virtual pounds as she walked hunched over and then stood up to demonstrate how improved posture made her appear thinner. 

“Posture is the base of all exercise programs,” Leedy said. She said she begins with basic exercises to prompt motivation for people to move more. A chair program is offered for those who can’t get on a mat for the exercises.

“Jesus walked everywhere he went,” Leedy said. “He must have been a healthy man. We start with walking. That’s where our journey begins.”

Not everyone in the class needs weight loss. The program also is geared to those like Sylvia McGuire who desired weight maintenance and flexibility. She’s repeating the program with her husband Bob and now encourages her family to eat better.

Englehardt and Leedy volunteer to lead program. The $50 a person fee goes to fund the parish nurse office. They have found that the knowledge gained in the program boosts the confidence of parishioners.

“I hope they are certainly more healthy,” Englehardt said, “and they are not so obsessed with weight as they are with health. We want to lengthen their life span. We hope, too, that they come out with a better acceptance of themselves and the beauty of the human body as a child of God.”

“Faith is a mandate of the church,” Englehardt said. “We teach and preach health. It’s natural that the two go hand in hand.”

Christine Bordelon can be reached at


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