Fitness guru embarks on an exercise of faith

Vicky Hallett / The Washington Post /


Published Feb 28, 2013 at 04:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

Donna Richardson Joyner is what most people would refer to as a fitness guru. But she prefers a term a kid called her a few months back: “a cheerleader for Jesus.”

Even without the pom-poms, it’s a spot-on description of the seriously spirited 50-year-old who gained VHS fame as one of the “Buns of Steel” instructors, and eventually found that God had a greater plan for her toning talents.

Her mom, who would watch Joyner’s workouts with the sound off while playing gospel, had urged her for years to make a fitness video with Christian music. Joyner was uneasy about the idea until she led a “workout in worship” at a church in St. Louis, with the organ playing and the choir standing behind her.

“You know how runners get a runner’s high? We got a spiritual high,” says Joyner, who went back to her hotel, cried and settled on a new life’s mission.

‘Witness to Fitness’

It started with her first “Sweating in the Spirit” DVD, featuring her moves and musical performances by gospel artists Kirk Franklin, Yolanda Adams and Shirley Murdock. She later launched “Body Gospel” through Beach Body. In addition to workout DVDs — such as “Core Revelation,” which targets the abs and thighs — the package includes resistance bands and nutrition tips.

And now Joyner has written a book, with a little help from the Good Book. In “Witness to Fitness: Pumped Up! Powered Up! All Things are Possible!,” she provides a 28-day program that offers more than just what to eat and how to exercise.

“There’s Scripture to keep you motivated and a song to keep you invigorated,” Joyner says, sounding a lot like the rhyming “Donnamite Sound Bites” sprinkled through the text. (“You need faith for this journey because life can be tough. But, honey, you’ve got God, who is more than enough!”)

Every day also brings a testimonial from or about someone who has struggled with health challenges, financial hardships or another obstacle on the way to a better life. Reading these stories, Joyner explains, reminds you that you’re not on this journey alone. “Other people are climbing the same mountains,” she says.

Reaching out to others

Joyner also understands literal mountains, having recently hiked Mount Kilimanjaro to celebrate reaching a half-century. Preparing for that climb took a few months, but that’s nothing compared with the work that Joyner is putting in to reach her loftier goal of improving lives, particularly those of other African-Americans.

“Every time I came home, I was going to a funeral. I was witnessing too much of my family, my community, and my church suffering, and suffering from preventable illness,” Joyner says.

She jokes that she wants to put on a robe, so she can pretend to be a judge, slamming a gavel and declaring that excuses for eating artery-clogging foods or not exercising are “not approved!”

Trying something new

Just as Joyner always asks people to try something different to get them moving, she is embarking on a new exercise program herself.

When it comes to activity, there isn’t much she hasn’t tried. Growing up, her family visited a roller rink in Rockville, Md., every weekend, and she was a star athlete in high school.

These days, she likes bike-riding, hiking, Pilates, weight training, swimming and golf. When she’s visiting her mom, they’ll go out dancing until 3 in the morning. (“But we still get to church on Sunday,” she says.)

But despite participating in numerous 5Ks and half-marathons, Joyner has never been much of a runner. This year, the power walker is picking up her pace.

The goal is to be ready for August’s Hood to Coast, a 200-mile relay in Oregon, where she’ll be heading up a team of 12 African-American women.