Material History of American Religion Project

Christian aerobics

Christian aerobics logo Cross train logo

Religious people have long reflected on the mystery of the human soul's relation to its fleshly body during life on earth. Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other groups have wrestled intently with this question and have come to a wide variety of formulations in different historical moments and cultural contexts. The images here represent a fascinating contemporary example of how some American Christians are treating the body-soul issue, raising the body to a rather higher plane of attention, cultivation, and honor than was generally acceptable to their religious forebears.

Evangelical Christian diet programs such as "Diet, Discipline, and Discipleship" and Overeaters Victorious first emerged during the early 1970s and have grown at a rapid rate. By the mid-1980s, Christian exercise and fitness programs like Believercise and "Free to Be Thin" aerobics became highly visible as well, spawned in part by the larger fitness craze that was sweeping across the U.S. The Christian Aerobics Resource, from whose catalog these images are taken, now sells a wide range of products ranging from Christian aerobics tapes ("Praise in Motion," "Steppin' on Higher Ground"), motivational journals ("Thoroughly Fit"), and instructor training manuals to religiously inspired workout clothes, "Faithfully Fit" water bottles, and high-tech weight machines.

Both images shown here are logos for t-shirts that can be ordered from the Christian Aerobics Resource. The image on the left mixes religious, athletic, and cultural symbols, combining a cross, a heart, a star, a representation of fire, a circle, a kind of flag (presumably the U.S. flag), and an athlete lifting an arm in victory. The image on the right plays on the double meanings of "cross training," advising fitness buffs that their pursuit of strong, taut bodies can and ought to be a holy quest to please God. In both images, as in the wider Christian fitness industry at large, the message resounds: God heartily approves of "fit" (and not fat) Christians, and human beings ought to treat our bodies neither as burdens nor as playthings but as living "temples of the Lord."

These objects and essay were supplied by project scholar Marie Griffith, who is researching the role of bodily disciplines in American religion.

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