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

Donna Richardson, the most senior member of the President's Council on Fitness, is dedicating her life to prosthelytizing a connection between faith and fitness.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 21, 2010

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."

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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."

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