After attending a few aerobics classes as a teenager, Alisa Keeton knew she needed one of those pink leotards. She begged her mom to outfit her newfound passion and never looked back. Fitness became her life’s work and her ministry.

Keeton, 46, founded Revelation Wellness ten years ago in Phoenix, just as CrossFit and other high-intensity exercise programs were taking off nationwide. But Keeton and her instructors saw that physical activity could go beyond weight loss or strength training. They maintain that holistic health focused on God, not self, enables God’s people to serve him better.

The ministry uses fitness as a pathway to freedom, encouraging participants to ditch what weighs them down physically and spiritually. Prayers and pushups go together. Scripture is preached as reps are counted. Together, healing happens. For Keeton’s team, physical fitness is not the end goal — it is merely a tool to proclaim Christ.

Wellness revealed

The landscape for group fitness classes looks a lot different than the shiny Spandex that filled Keeton’s first aerobics class in the 1980s. She has spent the last 25 years working as a fitness professional, watching workout culture grow simultaneously more intense (think “extreme” fitness challenges and races) and mainstream (Zumba at the YMCA and P90X videos at home).

Keeton’s launch of Revelation Wellness corresponds with a swelling interest in faith-based wellness nationwide.

Pastors led their congregations to collectively shed thousands of pounds, and leaders such as Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, launched programs incorporating the Bible, exercise, and diet. In 2015, the American Council on Exercise predicted an “increase in faith-based fitness programs.”

Health-conscious believers have lots of choices when it comes to trimming their waists while boosting their faith. Books, DVDs, and instructors talk exercise and diet while quoting Scripture, and explicitly faith-based options such as Holy Yoga, PraiseMoves, and Christian CrossFit gyms teach classes in person. Many of these products and programs specifically serve women, said Brad Bloom, the publisher of Faith & Fitness Magazine.

“Faith and fitness isn’t a trend,” Bloom said, noting that combining physical and spiritual health concerns dates back at least to the late 1800s. “It is now a solidly established approach to whole health and dynamic Christian ministry.”

This increase in faith-based options mirrors the industry as a whole, as consumers (especially millennials) opt to sweat in boutique fitness studios and group classes, seeking the community and specialized experience they offer.

Article continues below

Before starting her ministry, Keeton began to see a longing among her personal training and group fitness clients that went deeper than toning up and losing weight. Even when her clients met their goals, they weren’t satisfied.

The constant fads in her industry highlighted the dissatisfaction. Something new always promised that ever-elusive transformation. Nothing was ever enough.

“My clients really wanted Jesus,” she said. “They wanted the gospel. They wanted to know they belonged more than they wanted six-pack abs. And that really wrecked me.”

When a friend suggested Keeton launch a Christian aerobics class, she cringed. She knew how cheesy that sounded. But after a conference, the calling became clearer and she began to put pen to paper. The curriculum she wrote eventually became a book she published earlier this year: The Wellness Revelation: Lose What Weighs You Down So You Can Love God, Yourself, and Others (Tyndale Momentum)

She already knew how to motivate people to pursue physical change. Now God was asking her to take what she had learned to lead people toward spiritual change.

Fitness teacher, gospel preacher

Revelation Wellness has spread well past Phoenix, with roughly 1,000 certified instructors nationwide—they call them “fitness teachers, gospel preachers.”

Their nine-week training includes a study of the Book of Nehemiah and Revelation Wellness curriculum and concludes with a retreat intensive in Northern Arizona. Instructors don’t learn a specific style of group fitness, and much of what they study comes from the American Council on Exercise textbook, said Keeton, who is certified through that organization.

Finding a place for instructors to teach once certified has proved a challenge, with both churches and gyms hesitant to fling open their doors.

“We’re too worldly for the church and too churchy for the world,” Keeton said.

While secular gyms don’t welcome the faith element of a Revelation Wellness class, churches have doubts of their own.

Bloom said he has seen churches resist fitness classes for reasons ranging from uncertainties about insurance coverage to questions on “how to regulate the customer.”

They ask, “What will we allow them to wear? How will we discipline them if they use profanity?” he said. “Instead, the church needs to see each and every human behavior as an opportunity for ministry.”

Article continues below

Keeton brought up having to push back against the notion that “it is wasted energy trying to focus on anything physical when the spiritual development … is of the highest concern.”

Revelation Wellness also takes its ministry on the road, hosting two-day conferences around the country and a Grand Canyon hike. Those who can’t participate in a live event can pay a monthly fee for access to an archive of pre-recorded workouts.

“For most people, [working out] is either punishment or drudgery,” said Heather Johnson, an instructor and the ministry’s director of culture. “Some people really enjoy working out, but for most people, it’s not something they realize they can do unto the Lord. It’s not a punishment for eating poorly the day before. It’s making sure our bodies are healthy and whole so we can serve well and love him.”

Johnson said Revelation Wellness training seeks to reset how participants understand their bodies — they are designed by God, to be offered as worship. Fusing faith and fitness establishes a mentality that focuses on the health of a whole person, encompassing the mind, body, and soul.

Research has long supported this—movement relieves stress and manages anxiety. Keeton believes that effect allows for some deep soul work.

Revelation Wellness’ slogan sums up the appeal of Christian fitness for many believers: “Love God. Get healthy. Be whole. Love others.” With that perspective, fitness isn’t self-centered.

Johnson has experienced that kind of holistic transformation firsthand. She said God delivered her from anorexia and body dysmorphia and working out was an idol to control and manipulate.

Most women experience some degree of expectation for their bodies, from the gripping psychology of an eating disorder to the relentless quest to lose five more pounds.

“An image of an angular, skinny woman became elevated as the female ideal, seen every time we stand in a checkout line, turn on the TV, go to the movies, or pass by an Abercrombie and Fitch,” Halee Gray Scott wrote for CT. On Instagram, hashtags such as #fitspiration and #fitnessmotivation show lifted booties, chiseled abs, and defined arms.

Keeton believes these are all cultural definitions of beauty and not worth pursuing—that’s why she doesn’t look for a particular body type or shape when hiring her instructors.

Article continues below

“My encouragement to women is that the judgment is in: You’re loved. You belong,” she said. “And there is sickness inside of you. Go to the feet of Jesus and have him pull it out, and then move your body in response to the goodness of his love.”

In a blog post entreating women to pause before taking on the next diet, Keeton asked, “Is this desire [to diet] prompted by God or feeding my flesh?” She encouraged the reader to consider whether her mental diet had consisted of Instagram or biblical truth. Keeton wrote:

Get real with your expectations. We are living in a time that places beauty and youth at the top of our culture’s most wanted list. … Yes, take care of your body. It is the best tool you have to live out a life of joy, peace and love! A few extra folds of skin that occur as you age are not a crime against humanity, friends. … Older women, the younger women won’t know what freedom from worldly constraints looks like unless someone shows them. End the war of trying to find or preserve your younger self and embrace the woman of freedom and grace you already are.

Finding freedom

Keeton herself knows what it feels like to succumb to those outside pressures and use her body to seek attention and affirmation, like when she opted to get breast implants about 17 years ago. “I bought into a cultural lie,” she said. “I bought the lie, and I have to say even when I had them, I don’t know. I never remember feeling like, ‘Yes! This is amazing!’”

A couple years ago, God led her to literally remove a burden from her chest. The whisper had always been there—“I wonder what it would be like to be my original self.” She preached fitness, freedom, and faith to others, inviting people to live fully as themselves. Now God had the same invitation for her.

“God wasn’t going to love me any less for keeping them, but where he wanted me to go, I could only go without having the enemy accuse me of being a fraud,” she said.

Keeton wants others to experience the healing she found by drawing closer to the Lord and letting that relationship change everything about how she viewed and treated her body.

“When people say, ‘I want to lose weight,’ I say, ‘Okay, but get ready. It’s going to cost you your comfort. You can’t keep doing the same thing. You can’t keep thinking the same thoughts,’” she said, noting that the work of sanctification and healing requires sacrifice. “This is a bigger message than you just want to lose some weight. Everyone wants freedom, but nobody wants to pay.”

Article continues below

But for her, the cost has been worth it.

“There is sickness inside of all of us,” she said. “And God, through loss, through discomfort, through fire, heals us. That’s how it goes beyond fitness.”

Johanna Willett is a reporter in Tucson. Follow her on Twitter @JohannaWillett.