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Outside Magazine: January, 2006

BEN LERNER: He's pumped, pious, and convinced that he's found the secret to a heavenly body and "outrageous happiness." Is Christian fitness coach and bestselling author Ben Lerner divinely inspired—or just blessed with marketing savvy?

by Jake Halpern

IT'S A MID-JULY EVENING IN THE TULSA SUBURB OF BROKEN ARROW, and several hundred people are gathered at the Arrow Heights Baptist Church for the grand finale of the Body by God Extreme Makeover Challenge, a 12-week faith-based fitness contest. The atmosphere is part athletics award banquet, part 12-step meeting. Gangs of fit, sporty-looking men and women are roaming around in jeans and running shoes. They shake hands, compliment one another's physiques, and offer hugs and ample thanks to the greatest coach of them all.

"I've tried fad diets and lost a few pounds, but then I got heavy again," says David Canavan, 48, a mustached airport security screener from Skiatook, Oklahoma. "This was the first time in ages that I've started something and finished it. I lost 48 pounds in all. When you are walking with God, and praying every day, he's going to work in your life."

"I lost only three pounds, but I took five and a half inches off my waist," Theresa Stewart, a 41-year-old naturopathic healer from Tulsa, tells me. "I have thyroid problems, and I've been diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. Before I started this, my energy was so low I couldn't get out of bed."

Like most of the other fired-up contestants, Canavan and Stewart also credit their success to Ben Lerner, the evening's special guest and the man whose teachings inspired the Makeover Challenge. A 39-year-old chiropractor based in Celebration, Florida, Lerner—whose followers know him as Dr. Ben—maintains that Christians can do God's work better if they have the health and physical stamina to live long, productive lives. His edict: You owe it to God to get in shape.

Lerner has published two bestsellers that spell it all out. One-Minute Wellness: The Natural Health & Happiness System That Never Fails is a guide to holistic health that emphasizes chiropractic principles and Christianity; co-written with chiropractor Greg Loman, it appeared on the USA Today charts when it was released last August. But it's Body by God: The Owner's Manual for Maximized Living , published in 2003 and quickly hitting the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller lists, that outlines Lerner's fitness program in the most useful detail.

The Body by God plan combines tips on time and stress management with low-impact aerobic exercise, basic weight training, and a diet based on low-fat, unprocessed "Foods by God": whole grains, lean meats, and fruits and vegetables. ("Foods by Man," on the other hand, are those that have been refined, pasteurized, and packaged—anything resembling a Ho Ho, Cheeto, or Slush Puppie—and are to be avoided.) Lerner promises "incredible health and outrageous happiness" for anyone who adheres to his diet-and-exercise program, which he boldly proclaims—with little or no scriptural evidence—as the one God intended for us to follow.

The focus on getting buff is a new concept for some Christians, many of whom grew up believing that the body is, in essence, a vehicle for sin and that biceps, triceps, and rock-hard abs are nothing but the fruits of vanity. But Lerner—a walking advertisement for Body by God, with his glowing cheeks and a sculpted five-foot-six frame—is more pragmatic. "There's a sense in the Christian world that you don't need to take care of the physical self," he says. "We're reminding people that the body is a vehicle for serving God."

For 30-year-old Nigel Allen, the call to follow God's fitness plan struck a chord. Over the past 84 days, Allen has dropped 24 pounds, two pants sizes, and 57 points on the cholesterol scale. "I haven't been in such good shape since I was 20, when I played minor league baseball for the Daytona Cubs," he says. When a shoulder injury ended his baseball career, in 1995, Allen joined the Army and was sent to South Korea. But after blowing out his knee in a training exercise and eventually returning to Tulsa, he found himself on crutches, depressed, and gulping eight cans of Mountain Dew each day.

"There's no feeling worse than quitting soda," Allen says. "It's worse than crack. And that's where the Body by God teachings come into play—God helps you through it. The book talks about eating five God foods a day. I changed Mountain Dew to water and carrots. Carrots are the key, man."

_____

DR. BEN HAS FLOWN TO TULSA to present awards to the Makeover Challenge's top achievers. David Canavan and his wife, Sandy, the overall winners, will receive a $500 check for losing a collective 63 pounds and writing an essay on how Body by God helped improve their marriage.

Lerner's appearance is part of a hectic schedule that has him traveling up to 50 weeks a year, visiting the 1,500 North American churches that use his program to encourage fitness among their members. He also promotes his books, which together have sold more than 200,000 copies, and a line of 50 Body by God products, including cookbooks, workout videos, newsletters, golf shirts, and nutritional supplements like Body by God Memory Enhancer and Brain Connector pills, a blend of ginkgo biloba, vitamins, and minerals that the Body by God Web site (www.thebodybygod.com) recommends for Alzheimer's patients, autistic children, and "adults all over the world."

Of course, Lerner isn't the first person to merge faith and fitness. Since the 1960 publication of I Prayed Myself Thin, by then-22-year-old American model and "happily married housewife" Deborah Pierce, books for devout dieters have been popping up on religious bestseller lists. But Lerner is the rising star in a new generation of fitness gurus with the marketing savvy to reach far beyond the traditional Christian marketplace. His emphasis on chiropractic—which he sees as a means to help the body heal itself "without the use of dangerous drugs and surgeries"—also sets him apart from the pack.

Lerner practiced chiropractic care in Kissimmee, Florida, for nearly 12 years; at one point, he says, he personally adjusted the spines of 1,000 or more patients a week. Since 1994 he has cofounded 12 clinics in Florida, the Carolinas, and the Midwest. Through his consulting company, Teach the World About Chiropractic, he advises more than 1,000 chiropractors in the United States, Canada, and Australia, encouraging them to add a spiritual component to their practices. And 375 of his consulting clients have signed on as Body by God "providers"—chiropractic missionaries, of sorts, who lead classes on the Body by God principles and host Makeover Challenges in their communities. After a one-time registration fee of around $2,000, Body by God providers can buy products from Lerner wholesale, then offer them to clients at retail prices.

Lerner declines to disclose his annual income, saying only that in the past two years his Body by God projects alone have grossed around $1 million, all of which, he says, goes back into the business. He supports his family on the money he and his wife, Sheri, a slim 39-year-old who is also a chiropractor, make at their Celebration Family Chiropractic clinic.

Lerner will admit that it's all adding up quite nicely. "I believe we've done so well because we give a lot back to our church, missions, and people in need," he says. "I've also put strong financial advisers around me—all of this has made me a millionaire."

His disciples are profiting, too. The Broken Arrow contest was organized by local chiropractor and Body by God provider David Dick, 39, a lumberjack of a man who played football for Oklahoma State University. Since hiring Lerner as a consultant in 2003, Dick says, his client base has increased tenfold, from 80 patients to 800. His admiration for Dr. Ben is evident as he walks up to the pulpit to introduce him.

"You know, Satan always tries to keep you off track," Dick begins. "Satan doesn't want you here tonight to hear this message of healing—that's why you got the flat tire on the way here, and that's why the kids were wailing in the backseat. But we have people here who refused to give up.

"Of course if you weigh 500 pounds, God still loves you. But can he use you? If David had carpal tunnel syndrome, could he have thrown that stone? If Moses was overweight, and he had back problems, could he have led people out of the desert?"

Dick's enthusiasm for Lerner builds until he's speaking with the energy of a ringside announcer. "He is the big kahuna!" he yells. "I pay $1,000 just to talk to him! He is my coach! He doesn't just tell you what you want to hear; he tells you what you need to hear!"

At this point, Lerner descends from the balcony, jogging down a steep set of stairs. On cue, the church's loudspeakers rumble to life, blaring the theme from Rocky.

_____

BEN LERNER is the rare celeb who looks as waxy and new in person as he does in his author photos. He has a delicate, almost pointy face, blazing red hair, and a well-toned torso that shows through his skintight shirts.

I first met him in early June, in Winnipeg, Canada, where he was consulting with several chiropractors and speaking at the midweek evening service at Springs Church, a 10,000-member congregation that's the largest in Canada. He had brought his family along: Sheri; their two-year-old daughter, Nicole; and ten-year-old Skylar, Ben's son from a previous marriage.

I arrived at the Lerners' Winnipeg hotel about an hour before the Springs Church engagement and found them sitting quietly in the lobby. Before I could even shake Lerner's hand, a tall, square-jawed man in a suit and sunglasses—he could have doubled as a Secret Service agent, although I later discovered he was the Springs Church accountant—strode into the hotel.

"Are you ready?" he asked Lerner curtly, introducing himself as Mike, the evening's driver. Mike hurried us into a sleek, spacious SUV, then slipped behind the wheel and began droning into the tiny headset clipped to his ear. "Yes, sir," he told his contact at the church. "We'll be there in ten minutes."

As we navigated the streets of downtown Winnipeg, Lerner simultaneously played with his daughter, riffled through a pile of papers, and looked up occasionally to answer my questions.

"My husband is a master at handling time," said Sheri, who accompanies Lerner on a third of his trips. "It's his greatest strength. He can switch from doctor to dad to husband to author. He wrote his book in 30-minute chunks, once a day. Some people would take 15 minutes just to warm up."

I found Lerner's most impressive trait his ability to stay on message—he smoothly avoided almost all my attempts to get beyond his stage persona. When we talked about his past, I heard the same scripted story I'd read in his books and heard in his speeches. What Lerner doesn't write or preach about—but what he told me later, back at his hotel—is that his conversion to Christianity came fairly recently.

Benjamin Solomon Lerner was born in Queens in 1966. As he describes it, his childhood sounds like something right out of a Woody Allen movie.

"We were a typical New York Jewish family," he said. "Love was more implied than shown, and my father had a kind of pessimistic attitude. The culture I came from was high-stress and panicked—people always worrying about success and making money—and it was killing my family members quick."

The men in Lerner's extended family—including his father, Marvin, who died of a heart attack at 52—were overweight and suffered from high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Ben's mother, Dorothy, now 62, predicted that Ben, too, would become obese by the time he hit his late twenties. "I thought that was funny," Lerner said with a wry smile, "because my friend Billy's mom was always telling him that at 30 he would be an attorney."

When Ben was four, the family moved to Ohio, and he grew up in Cleveland and Columbus, where he attended synagogue and had a bar mitzvah. In high school, Lerner discovered wrestling. But during his freshman year at the State University of New York at Albany, he realized he would never make the varsity team with a body plagued by constant injury and illness. Seeking relief from shoulder and back pain, Lerner first saw a chiropractor in 1987. That visit, he likes to say, was "a revelation"; his health improved immediately, and he began to turn his life around.

Benjamin Solomon Lerner was born in Queens in 1966. As he describes it, his childhood sounds like something right out of a Woody Allen movie.

"We were a typical New York Jewish family," he said. "Love was more implied than shown, and my father had a kind of pessimistic attitude. The culture I came from was high-stress and panicked—people always worrying about success and making money—and it was killing my family members quick."

The men in Lerner's extended family—including his father, Marvin, who died of a heart attack at 52—were overweight and suffered from high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Ben's mother, Dorothy, now 62, predicted that Ben, too, would become obese by the time he hit his late twenties. "I thought that was funny," Lerner said with a wry smile, "because my friend Billy's mom was always telling him that at 30 he would be an attorney."

When Ben was four, the family moved to Ohio, and he grew up in Cleveland and Columbus, where he attended synagogue and had a bar mitzvah. In high school, Lerner discovered wrestling. But during his freshman year at the State University of New York at Albany, he realized he would never make the varsity team with a body plagued by constant injury and illness. Seeking relief from shoulder and back pain, Lerner first saw a chiropractor in 1987. That visit, he likes to say, was "a revelation"; his health improved immediately, and he began to turn his life around.

Lerner transferred to Life University, a chiropractic college in Marietta, Georgia, during his sophomore year. By the time he was 30, in 1996, he had graduated with degrees in nutrition and chiropractic and settled in central Florida. (He married his first wife in 1993, divorcing a year later.) He was serving as the official chiropractor for the U.S. Olympic wrestling team and running one of the largest chiropractic clinics in the world—the Lerner Family Chiropractic Center, in Kissimmee. His health was good. He was fit. Yet he didn't feel settled.

"Deep down," he said, "I felt that something was missing." Until one day, in 1998, when the family of one of his patients invited him to the nondenominational South Side Christian Church. "There was just something about this family," he recalled. "So I decided to accept the invitation."

Given his strict Jewish upbringing, Lerner saw flirting with Christianity as "stabbing my family in the back." In church, however, he was overcome with a deep sense of peace. "It was a really great group," Lerner said, "and despite their circumstances, whether they had faced the death of family members or financial crises, they seemed happy."

In 1999, Lerner was baptized at South Side Christian. Two years later, he married Sheri Schatzenbach, a Christian chiropractor he'd met at a professional seminar in Atlanta. And when he decided to write the fitness book he'd been thinking about for several years, he infused it with a strong dose of religion.

"One of the keys to my success is that I stay relevant," Lerner said. "Right now, all the popular diets and fitness programs are failing. We have record obesity numbers. Most diseases are at their all-time high."

Sounds like what any fitness maven would say. But Lerner is always careful not to let the physical overwhelm the spiritual, emphasizing that it's possible to put too much focus on the body.

"It's like what my pastor says about people he sees running instead of worshiping on Sunday mornings," he said. "You may look good now, but how great will you look when you're on fire?"

_____

WHEN WE ARRIVED AT SPRINGS CHURCH, Leon Fontaine, the congregation's tall, handsome head pastor, ushered us into an elegant waiting room with a fireplace, wood paneling, and a flat-screen TV. Almost immediately, a sound engineer rushed in and began wiring Lerner with a tie-clip microphone. Several women whisked Skylar and Nicole off to the daycare center, just down the hall from the congregation's full-service espresso bar.

"I've spoken at several churches like this," Lerner said nonchalantly. "The one I recently visited, Willow Creek in Chicago, is about three times bigger."

"What's the title for your message tonight?" yelled a techie, rushing to finalize the evening's video graphics.

"I call it 'Living Right Side Up in an Upside-Down World,' " Lerner said calmly.

"Got it!" the techie called on his way out.

Moments later, Pastor Fontaine and Lerner headed for the massive sanctuary, where several thousand congregants were clapping hands and belting out the words to "History Maker," a rock anthem by the Christian group Delirious. Some took turns wading into a giant Jacuzzi that also serves as the church's baptismal pool.

As Lerner emerged on the stage, the crowd grew quiet. "If you look in the Bible, you won't find a place where someone loses ten pounds and the angels cheer," he began in a smooth, measured voice. The audience laughed. But Lerner—his face now projected onto three giant video screens—grew serious as he explained our duty to get in shape. "Ultimately we have to take care of the vessel that runs the race for God!"

Lerner isn't bothered by the fact that the Bible doesn't

directly address the need to stay fit. He says the Body by God program is the one God "intended" because it follows the basic laws of Scripture, along with nature, nutritional science, and God-given common sense. Indeed, while Lerner's presentation maybe groundbreaking, his exercise and eating principles—a diet low in saturated fat, regular sessions of moderate

to intense exercise—are standard fare, likely to be endorsed by any mainstream physician or fitness expert.

"This stuff is common knowledge," says Allan Goldfarb, a professor of exercise and sport science at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and a fellow at the American College of Sports Medicine. "But if he's getting people to be active and start eating right, how can you say no to that? We're doing a terrible job of educating people about fitness and nutrition in this country. Sometimes people need to hear the same message in different ways."

Perhaps more than anything, Lerner's timing has been right. Carol Showalter, 68, a book publicist based in Orleans, Massachusetts, who founded the popular "3D" Christian diet movement ("Diet, Discipline, and Discipleship") in the seventies, thinks he's tapped into an emerging trend to connect fitness and spirituality.

"There's a tiredness with secular forms of self-improvement; that's why yoga and meditation movements are taking off," Showalter says. "People are reaching outside of themselves for help. For Christians, that means reaching for God."

But Showalter is also skeptical. "I don't think there's anything magical about including God in a diet program," she says. "After 30 years, I've seen a lot of people on Christian diets who have failed. Food issues very often stem from other problems in life that have to be resolved. And if 'God's plan' doesn't work for someone, they may end up feeling that he loves them even less."

_____

WHETHER OR NOT GOD IS HIS GYM BUDDY, Lerner definitely practices what he preaches. He keeps in shape by running or biking, works out in a home gym, and adheres to the Body by God diet. In the time I spent with him, I found Lerner to be disciplined, driven, and focused. I also found him to be motivated by a sincere wish to share his healthy lifestyle with others. If he has a flaw, it may be his all-consuming self-confidence—which at times borders on hubris. Lerner is so convinced of his ability to help fellow Christians that he often passes off his own teachings as God's.

Still, it's safe to say that Dr. Ben will find more followers in 2006 as he rolls out new components of his growing empire. In a move designed to increase his presence in the secular world, Lerner plans to publish a few books that leave words like "God" and "Bible" out of their titles. Generation XL Excel, for example, a kids' self-help book about obesity that Lerner co-wrote with Chicago-based osteopath Joseph Mercola, is due out this spring. Lerner has already been booked as keynote speaker at the 2006 National Parent Teacher Association convention, to be held in Phoenix this June.

Next fall, to serve Lerner's Christian fan base, Thomas Nelson Publishers will release The Maximized Living Bible, an annotated Bible linking various passages to fitness, health, inner peace, and financial well-being. Lerner will continue to build his consulting business and speak at some of the 400 Body by God Extreme Makeover Challenges already on the 2006 calendar, in cities from Colorado Springs to Chicago.

Ultimately, the best measure of Lerner's success may be the long-term fitness of his followers. Two-thirds of the original 300 participants in the Broken Arrow Makeover Challenge stuck with it through the end, Lerner reports. And he believes faith will help them hold on to their healthy habits.

"Body by God was created in a working laboratory of thousands of patients," he says. "I only recommend what people are able to follow. And I teach that motivation alone does not work. Commitment, the mature decision to take care of your body, can only come from inspiration—from something outside of yourself."

Three months after the Arrow Heights contest, I check back with Nigel Allen, the former Mountain Dew addict. Allen proudly reports that he's lost an additional five pounds.

"Without all that weight on my knees, I'm able to jog now, and I can run after my daughters," he says. "In order to be a spiritual leader for my family, I simply have to stay in shape.

"We'll never know if certain things in life work," Allen continues. "If religion is wrong, what are you losing out on—Sundays? It seems to me that chiropractics and religion are investments—and cheap investments at that."

The key, Allen concludes, is believing.