Faith and fitness


Diana_Lubers_spirtiual_fitness_classParishes in Syracuse Diocese look to make healthy choices

by Luke Eggleston
Sun staff writer

Over the last 20 years, there has been a significant increase in the number of Americans who suffer from obesity, especially children. Obesity has been linked to heart disease, type-two diabetes, cancer, hypertension and several other maladies.

In addition, heart disease remains the number one killer in the U.S.

In the Syracuse Diocese, several institutions and groups have made fitness a top priority.

Kathy Medovich is the parish nurse coordinator at Lourdes Hospital in Binghamton. Part of her job is establishing health and fitness programs in churches throughout the Southern Tier and Central New York.

“I encourage our churches to have a health ministry,” she said.

She recommended several programs that include both fitness and spirituality. Outlines for many of the programs may be found on the Internet, including Medovich’s own page on the Lourdes Hospital Web site,

Medovich recommended PraiseMoves, a program developed by Lorette Willis that claims to be a “Christian Alternative to Yoga.” She also mentioned Donna Tepper’s “Weighing the Truth,” which is a holistic weight management program.

Many parishes utilize the “Walk to Jerusalem” program during the Lenten season and “Walk to Bethlehem” during Advent. Medovich said that participants simply record the number of miles they walk each day until they arrive at a total goal.

“We need faith and health in every church,” Medovich said. “We’re stewards of our own body. We need to take care of ourselves before we can take care of others.”

Several weeks ago, parishioners at St. Augustine’s Church in Baldwinsville began the program “3D: Your Whole Life,” which combines prayer with a special diet program.

The three “D’s” stand for diet, discipline and discipleship. According to founders Carol Showalter and Maggie Davis, the program was inspired by Jesus’ words “Your faith has made you whole.” (Mark 5:34) Showalter and Davis co-authored the book “Your Whole Life: The 3D Plan for Eating Right, Living Well, and Loving God.”

St. Augustine’s Minister for Adult Faith Enrichment Debbie Krisher implemented the program in her church.

Her inspiration was simply a personal desire to live a healthier lifestyle.

“It came from my own experience and wanting to be more healthy,” Krisher said.

She said that the spiritual dimension the program addresses is stewardship of one’s body.

“We are called to take care of the bodies that God has given us,” she said.

The fact that the 3D program combined diet with spirituality also appealed to Krisher. After discussing the program with several members of St. Augustine’s, Krisher decided that there was enough interest to launch the group.

In addition to active members of the parish, Krisher said she hoped the 3D program could also be used as an “evangelization tool.”

Each day during the 12-week program, participants read from the Sciptures, reflect on their diet as well as on their faith and record their experiences in a journal. They are also directed to walk a minimum distance each day. At a more advanced stage of the program, participants perform exercises other than walking.

In addition, they attend weekly meetings. At each meeting, the participants discuss a theme for the week. The theme for the first week, for example, was belief; while the second week’s theme was discipline.

Currently 20 to 25 people attend one of the two weekly sessions of the 3D program. As of last week, the group had met on only three days, so Krisher was resistant to gauge its success.

“I think it’s been good so far,” Krisher said.

Roughly 13 months ago, Ellen McCauley started a weight-loss program of her own design, “Pray it Off,” at Holy Family Parish in the Fairmount area of Syracuse.

Like Krisher, her motivation was personal.

“I have always had weight issues,” she said. “I tried many different programs — Weight Watchers, Nutrisystem — and I always lost weight, but I always gained it back.”

McCauley became very discouraged before finally turning to prayer. It was then that she came to believe that if she combined her effort to help herself with equal efforts to help others, God would help her, she said.

After a considerable amount of research, McCauley developed a weight-loss plan that combined spirituality and a healthy diet. She then presented her plan to the Parish Life and Worship Committee.

“I came home and told my husband, ‘Guess what? They approved my plan and I already have a member.’ When he asked ‘Who?’ I said, ‘You.’ And guess what? He’s lost 50 pounds,” McCauley said.

On Jan. 3, 2008, “Pray it Off” held its first meeting with roughly 20 people. Since then, the group has expanded to approximately 65 people, who have lost, as a group, a total of 1,215 pounds. McCauley herself said she has lost 113 pounds and is convinced she’ll be able to keep them off.

The phrase “Pray it Off” is designed to conform with the acronym “PIO,” which refers to St. Pio of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio), whom the group asks to intercede on its behalf. According to McCauley, Padre Pio himself struggled with food.

The group meets each week on Thursday from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. The sessions begin with a weigh-in during which participants present McCauley with a food log  detailing their diet for the past week, the amount of walking they’ve completed and the amount of water they’ve drunk.

McCauley said the group places a heavy emphasis on its Catholicity and the sessions begin with a prayer. After prayer, the participants receive awards for every 10 pounds they’ve lost. McCauley explained that for every 10 pounds, the participant receives a piece of the phrase “Praise the Name of Jesus.” Once they’ve earned all five words, they receive an image of Christ.

After the participants receive their awards, McCauley offers a brief presentation followed by a small-group discussion. At the end of the meeting, the participants recite the “Hail Mary.”

The key, according to McCauley, is the stress on Catholocism.

“We are unashamedly, unabashedly Catholic,” she said.

McCauley added, “We give our issues to God. Instead of turning to a hot fudge sundae when our kid has a problem, we put it in the hands of God.”

She also noted that the collective weight loss is a result of Holy Family parishioners coming together.

“We as a Catholic community can get together to solve problems,” she said.

The group is only open to people who are 50 pounds or more overweight. In addition, it is currently open only to Holy Family  parishioners.

“We have lots of [fun]. I really love and care about these people,” McCauley said, adding that after losing weight, the participants often bring in the clothes that no longer fit and share them with one another as a humorous way to celebrate their reduced waistbands.

Even after 13 months, McCauley said she is excited and enthusiastic in approaching her presentation for each new session.

“It just seems like God gives me all these little ideas,” she said.

In the future, McCauley hopes that other parishes can draw inspiration from the model she has established at Holy Family.

St. Joseph’s Church in Camillus hosts a different kind of program, which is taught by fitness pro Diana Luber. Luber began teaching what she calls “Mind, Body, Spirit Fitness Yoga — Pilates, Sculpt” when then St. Joseph’s pastor, the late Father Joseph Champlin, asked her to create a series of fitness activities for parishioners.

Father Champlin was well-known for his commitment to fitness and for the various marathons in which he competed.

Luber’s program is over a decade old as a part of the St. Joseph’s Parish Health ministry.

Although Fitness Yoga is open to anyone, Luber noted that 90 percent of the participants are from St. Joseph’s parish community. The group meets Mondays and Wednesdays from 9:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. and practices yoga, pilates and body sculpting. A $6 donation is requested for each session and attendance is open to all.

Luber has been interested in holistic fitness throughout her life. Over 35 years ago, she read cardiologist Kenneth Cooper’s seminal fitness book The Aerobics. She was inspired by the physician’s approach to fitness and its preventative emphasis and traveled to Dallas where she studied at the Cooper Institute.

Luber stressed that the form of yoga she teaches is distinct from classical yoga with its roots in eastern mysticism.

Fitness Yoga, Luber said, addresses the “wellness of the whole person, both the mind and the body.”

The class consists of a variety of exercises designed to improve body tone, flexibility, strength and balance. Class is concluded with the participants reciting words of affirmation in concert with a series of hand gestures: “I have energy, I have compassion, I have love, I have peace.” Luber then repeats a traditional Sanskrit word “namaste,” which loosely translates as “I honor the uniqueness in you and, conversely, you honor the uniqueness in me.”

The program emphasizes “making the best with the body you have,” according to Luber.

“The wellness program places an emphasis on vitality, not vanity,” she said. “I have a saying — ‘It feels good to feel good.’ The objective is growing happier and healthier.”

In a Jan. 27, 2002 church bulletin, Luber explained why the church is an ideal setting for such an exercise class.

“The church, or place of worship, offers a safe, familiar environment that nurtures people’s feelings of belonging,” she wrote. “Faith communities often act as extended families to older adults, offering comfort and support in good and bad times. Plus, places of worship promote a sense of community and togetherness that encourage people to make positive life choices.”

Those interested in the 3D program may visit the Web site

Luber can be contacted at (315) 488-8503 or via email at

Although she is very busy with the Holy Family program, those wishing to contact McCauley for advice on establishing their own program at their parishes may call her at (315) 468-4233.

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