Heavenly body: Donna Richardson makes every healthy move a leap of faith

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 21, 2010; C01

As arduous as exercise can be, and as ardently as yoga class namastes stress the body-spirit connection, and as often as one wishes to take the Lord's name in vain during the third set of squat-thrusts, it was only a matter of time before someone put it all together: Enter "Body Gospel."

"Can you feel His presence?" asks the chipper fitness instructor on the new workout DVD, available for $79.90 ("Give Praise. Get Results"). Right now, she is demonstrating Hallelujah Hands -- a move that combines a side squat with an arm scoop -- which are not to be confused with Praise Arms, Praise Lunges or the Praise Run. "It's all about combining God's love . . . and fitness!"

Behind her, in a fitness studio designed to look like a church -- soaring ceilings, stained glass -- are a half-dozen or so spandex-clad fitness types.

Behind them, wearing flowing yellow robes and joyfully singing: a gospel choir.

The woman behind all of this -- or rather in front of all of this, as she leads everyone in a rousing series of Glory Taps -- is Donna Richardson. Richardson, the health guru. Richardson, the most senior member of the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. Richardson, the local homecoming queen who grew up to marry the king of morning radio, Tom Joyner -- who got her professional start as one set of cheeks on "Buns of Steel" and who now wants to dedicate her life to proselytizing the connection between faith and fitness.

In Washington recently for the first official meeting of the President's Council, Richardson, who now lives in Dallas, is asked about this transformation:

"I used to have buns of steel," she says euphorically. "Now I have blessed buns."

* * *

Most people of religion, Richardson says, "don't waver in their beliefs." Their faith is solid, a constant. "So why not let that be your foundation for getting healthy? Why not use that as your strength? You are glorifying Him with good health!"

Curled on a couch at the Embassy Suites in Dupont Circle, Richardson wears form-fitting white pants, all the better to display hallowed glutes. Wrinkle-free at 53, she's wearing a tight T-shirt bedazzled with "PRESIDENT'S CHALLENGE." Earlier this week she'd worn an identical green one to a President's Council meeting; council co-chair Dominique Dawes enviously asked where she got it. Richardson generously revealed that she'd had a bunch made up "at one of those cheap little T-shirt shops in Chinatown . . . I'll get you one!"

The faithfully fit, the fabulously faithful -- they all know Donna Richardson.

"Through Donna, we've introduced aerobics into our service," says the Rev. Eddie Long, the muscly bishop of New Birth, a 30,000-member megachurch in Georgia. He'd heard of Richardson years earlier, when she made "Sweating in the Spirit," her first video foray into holy-robics, and he'd always thought that she could help take the worship experience to a new level. Since the release of "Body Gospel," she's come to his church to lead workouts in person; on other occasions, he's also streamed a live video of her, using Skype and a giant screen in the sanctuary. "It woke the people up," Long says of Richardson's workouts. "The energy of the worship went to another high."

"For her to be, number one, so fit and number two, so faithful?" he says, marveling at her talents. "She's an energizer. She's always uplifting."

She believes in empowering her acolytes, telling them that they are solely responsible for their physical and spiritual well-being: "We have to hold ourselves accountable," Richardson says. "God can't bless what you don't do."

Richardson grew up middle-class in Silver Spring, a natural athlete who swam, biked, played softball, ran track, did gymnastics and twirled batons, and whose family had a standard weekly date at the roller rink. In Jane Fonda's cozily leg-warmed 1980s, Richardson learned that fitness could become a career and spent several years traveling around the world, teaching proper leg-lift form to fitness instructors overseas.

But upon returning from one of these trips for a visit home -- where the focal point was yet again a food-laden table -- "I realized that the biggest issue I was facing was my own family."

One day some 10 years ago, her mother phoned her in tears, horrified after a shopping trip to realize she'd ballooned from a size 10 to a 16, and worried that her chiseled daughter would be embarrassed. She asked Richardson for help, but warned, You know I don't like to exercise. She loved to dance, though, and she was a devoted member of St. Paul AME Church in Northwest Washington. Richardson thought about how successful her mother could be, if she devoted herself as much to her own health.

"In Christianity," Richardson says, "you cannot glorify God with a jacked-up temple." In her pep-talky lingo, "jacked-up" means malformed, not hulked out.

(In the name of preserving her 10-year marriage to big-boned Joyner, 60, Richardson has refused to act as her husband's trainer. "He won't take walks with me because he says my [power-walking] looks geeky," she says. Joyner refers to her as "Cookie Police.")

In 2003 she came out with "Sweating in the Spirit," which featured performances by gospel stars Yolanda Adams and Shirley Murdock. Her mother, by the way, lost the weight. "The other ushers at her church went, Oooh, look at sister Laverne!"

"Body Gospel," released this summer, contains six different workouts, plus an eating plan. Initially nervous about the project, Richardson says, "when I saw the final project, I was like, 'Thank you, Jesus!' "

* * *

The President's Council, those guardians of the shuttle run and the sit and reach, is one of those administration stalwarts, originally founded in 1956 as the President's Council on Youth Fitness by Dwight D. Eisenhower after a study revealing that American children were less fit than their European counterparts (plus ├ža change). Then it became the President's Council on Physical Fitness, then the President's Council on Fitness and Sports. When President Obama took office, he added "nutrition" to the name and agenda, to highlight the administration's holistic campaign against childhood obesity.

Regardless of the name, the panel has mostly been a display case for celebrity athletes or fitness types -- members have few required responsibilities, though each is encouraged to attend meetings and do independent appearances. This administration's chairs are New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Dawes. (The Olympic gymnast grew up next door to Richardson's former boyfriend, and Dawes and Richardson are good pals.) Other members include ice skater Michelle Kwan and basketballer Grant Hill.

Of 16 members total, Richardson is the only one to be renewed from a previous administration; she was first appointed by President George W. Bush.

"It's unusual," council director Shellie Pfohl says of the longevity, "and that speaks to how perfect Donna is for this mission. She has a lifetime passion and commitment to helping people become more active, [and it] spans many avenues."

On a recent afternoon, Richardson joined several members of the council at a park near George Washington University. It was the kickoff of the "Million PALA Challenge," a push for 1 million Americans to achieve the Presidential Active Lifestyle Award, requiring near-daily exercise. To celebrate, groups of Washington school kids are playing an elaborate game of freeze tag with the council members: They are frozen by evil "plaque" taggers and unfrozen by "dentists."

"I want to be a dentist!" Richardson yells, and proceeds to untag everyone with gentle hugs. She, like the first lady, worries about the health of kids today -- the too-many-video-games, too-few-vegetables lifestyle. She worries about the contributing factors, like unsafe neighborhoods, that make it more difficult for some children to ride their bicycles until dark, the way that she used to.

After the campus event, Richardson quick-changes into a slinky pink ball gown for the annual gala of the Boys & Girls Clubs -- she's an advisory board member -- and she cheek-pecks old pal Denzel Washington. Then, after the salad course, she dashes, in special sparkly, open-toe sneakers, to the SneakerBall held by the Greater Washington Sports Alliance. She and her fellow President's Council members are being honored.

"I love your infomercials," former Philadelphia Eagle John Booty says to Richardson when he spots her near the bar. "You look good. You look like an athlete!"

The day after the gala, she has more council activities, and after that she's scheduled to lead a fitness demo for the Congressional Black Caucus. She is on the road as often as she's home, which she sees as her privilege and her cross to bear.

"I used to think I was a fitness teacher," she says. "But I am a messenger. A messenger of hope."

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