Seven years after suffering a stroke, 46-year-old Cynthia Howard Legro has a goal: Be physically fit on her 50th birthday.
On a rainy Saturday morning in October, she took her first steps, walking a mile along the Mississippi River levee in Baton Rouge with a group called Pew 2 Pavement, which combines Christian faith and fellowship with exercise.
Diagnosed with congestive heart failure in 2000, Legro’s stroke six years later left her paralyzed on her right side.
“I came back with God’s help,” Legro said. “I always kept the faith that I would be back up and about.”
About 20 women joined Pew 2 Pavement’s eight-week training program. They will meet Saturday mornings to pray, talk about their progress and walk and run together. During the week, they follow training regimens created by the program’s founder, fitness coach Nettye Johnson.
“To me, it is honoring God with the body,” Johnson, 44, said. “That’s what I hope people can embrace. That it is putting your faith in action in an area that (God) really does care about. He cares about our physical bodies.”
For their first workout together, a drizzling rain soaked the streets of downtown Baton Rouge. They met at 7 a.m. beneath an awning and prayed, then Johnson told her own story of how she never committed to regular exercise until she asked God to help.
“If you don’t go to church, don’t you feel different? If I don’t work out, I don’t feel right,” Johnson said. “He made that (feeling).”
Separating physical health from spiritual health is a mistake, she said.
“I know God helps me in my career, and I know God helps me to get my (education), but we don’t really rely on him when it comes to our health until we’re sick,” she said. “I felt led to help people make it a God thing. When I exercise, when I’m running, it is an act of worship. It’s a spiritual discipline.”
Watching close family members struggle with health problems sparked an interest in working out for Johnson. Exercising seriously for 12 years now, Johnson started running two years ago and has completed marathons and half marathons. She earned certifications as a fitness coach with the American Council on Exercise and the Running Clubs of America before starting Pew 2 Pavement.
On that first Saturday, after the rain slowed to a sprinkle, the 10 who braved the conditions started a one-mile time trial to get a basic understanding of each participant’s fitness level.
Lea Montgomery led the group, singing and encouraging others.
After five years of stress earning her law degree, Montgomery saw her fitness decline and her enjoyment of junk food grow. Hearing Johnson speak pushed her to get active again.
“It just rung something in me,” she said. “I have to do this. I have always felt like our bodies are temples to God, and our gratitude is what we do with these bodies.”
Meeting weekly will motivate them to exercise the same way Sunday worship at church helps maintain their faith, Rosalind Campbell, 56, said.
“I’ve tried by myself many times,” Campbell said. “This is awesome, an encouragement.”
Once they all completed their mile walk, the women held hands to pray on the levee path before separating for the week.
“Lord you care about our bodies,” Johnson said, praying with her eyes closed. “You made them.”