On those days when Torri Merten doesn't feel like hitting the gym for a workout, she cracks open one of the original self-help books: the Bible.
She turns to it for motivation, such as Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”
Merten, a 35-year-old Omaha mom, taps the Bible and her faith to help her get in shape and lose weight.
For many people, their faith is like a personal trainer, a supreme motivator that will give them a gentle tug or a kick in the seat.
Faith-based fitness is receiving increased attention with the recent release of a book co-authored by California mega-church pastor Rick Warren, “The Daniel Plan: 40 Days to a Healthier Life.”
Warren, the influential pastor of Saddleback Church and author of the best-selling “The Purpose Driven Life,” has said his new book is about living a healthier life based on biblical principals.
Other books on faith and fitness have emerged in recent years as obesity has become a growing problem in the United States, where seven in 10 adults are overweight.
The connection between faith and good health is not an artificial one, said Stephen Lahey, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Keeping the body pure and clean is part of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and all three carry messages about fasting, he added.
Some people tap their faith as part of individual fitness and weight loss efforts, while others join groups at their place of worship.
Merten teaches a class at King of Kings Lutheran Church that's based on the 2010 book “Made to Crave,” which emphasizes craving God instead of food. She hopes to start teaching a class this summer on Warren's new book.
Merten has struggled with her weight most of her life. Over the years, she had tried commercial weight loss programs and joined fitness clubs. She'd lose weight and then gain it back.
When she first read “Made to Crave” she weighed 376 pounds. She's now down to 336 and hopes to get to 200.
She said the book gave her weight-loss efforts a boost because it offered not just practical guidance on good nutrition but also spiritual direction.
“I really found the piece I was missing,'' she said.
Merten now pairs her faith with her weight-loss plan.
So she not only drinks water instead of pop every day, she prays that the Lord will give her willpower and motivation.
When she walks on the treadmill, she listens to Christian music, like “Overcomer,” with its lyrics: “You're an overcomer/ Stay in the fight till the final round/ You're not going under/ 'Cause God is holding you right now.”
Two years ago, the Water's Edge United Methodist Church in Omaha started a running group to help people train for half-marathons and other races.
Participants pray before training sessions and pray for themselves and each other that they will keep working toward their running goals. The group has drawn experienced runners but also folks who were overweight and had never raced before, said Craig Finnestad, pastor at the Waters Edge.
Carl Samuelson is one of the group's volunteer leaders and mentors. Five years ago Samuelson, who is 5-foot-10, weighed more than 300 pounds.
He initially started running and losing weight without God in his life. But he said since rediscovering the Lord three years ago, he has experienced more success because his faith motivates him.
He now weighs 200 pounds and ran his first half-marathon in 2009. Since then he has run nearly a dozen half-marathons and marathons.
Jay West, a pastor and Bellevue-based motivational speaker, travels across the country speaking to church groups and others about how the Lord can be a powerful force in people's lives.
All those airport meals and buffets on the road pushed his weight to nearly 300 pounds, which even on his 6-foot-7 frame caused joint pain and high blood pressure.
So he started taking his own advice and sought help from the Lord and the Bible. Since early fall, he has lost 37 pounds. His aches are gone and his blood pressure dropped.
He gave up desserts, breads and pasta. He now eats salads, fish and chicken, and he doesn't take a bite of anything after 7 p.m.
He'll take the steps instead of the elevator, and when he's waiting for a flight, he'll walk the terminal for exercise.
God and prayer are powerful, West said, but his faith taught him that he must take responsibility for changing his habits.
“(God's) doing his thing,” West said. “I have to do my part.”