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On Assignment: 'Purpose Driven Life' Author Rick Warren turns focus to fitness

By Chelsea Clinton
Rock Center Special Correspondent

When I heard Dr. Mark Hyman remark in January 2012 that Rev. Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church congregation had lost collectively more than 250,000 pounds in a year, I thought I must have heard him incorrectly. Or, I thought there must be tens of thousands of people participating to make the math work.  When I learned that, yes, there were more than 10,000 people participating, but not tens of thousands, that the average weight loss was an astonishing 20 pounds, with some people losing more than 100 pounds, and that people were keeping the weight off, I knew there was something special about what Warren had created with Dr. Hyman, Dr. Mehmet Oz and Dr. Daniel Amen. Their creation has been dubbed "The Daniel Plan."  It’s clearly not another diet fad.             

Rick Warren first came into my life when I read “The Purpose Driven Life” the year it came out – which was also the year after I graduated from college.  Given the time in my life, it’s not surprising in hindsight that some of the book’s teachings appealed to me.  That’s probably a pretty common story. There are arguably as many transitions in life as there are years.   Warren estimates that 1 in 5 Americans have read his most famous book.  Given that more than 3 out of 5 Americans are currently overweight or obese, The Daniel Plan could have an even wider reach.      

Click here for recipes and more on The Daniel Plan     

Much of the plan would be familiar to anyone who’s ever been on a diet or thought about going on one – eat lots of fruits, vegetables and lean proteins, don’t eat too much sugar or red meat and exercise.  When I asked Saddleback congregants and Daniel Plan participants whether they had previously ignored a doctor’s advice to lose weight, one answer echoed: yes.  When I asked the same group whether they signed up to The Daniel Plan because it was their minister and church asking them to get healthy, they all answered with some variation of: yes, the church was already the center of my life, it should be the center of my health too.

What’s first easy to focus on as a unique part of The Daniel Plan is its emphasis on taking care of one’s body because, after all, according to Warren, our bodies are only on loan from God.  What’s also a distinctive part of the plan is that from the beginning it worked through the 6,000 small groups that already existed within Saddleback.  Where people had long talked about scripture, they now talked about how best to prepare spinach and how many miles they’d walked that week.

Saddleback changed too – tents that once housed only worship services now have exercise classes from morning to night.  The good weather in Orange County, California doesn’t hurt either.  I saw people running around the campus and determinedly walking in groups.  Although few places have weather equal to Southern California, Warren and his team are convinced the model of good diet, exercise, small-group support and a deep belief that being healthy is what God wants can work in any congregation – Christian and non-Christian alike and in rural, suburban and urban settings equally.  Warren proudly told me of the synagogues that have reached out to learn about The Daniel Plan and asked for advice on how to implement it in their temples.  Dee Eastman, director of The Daniel Plan, assured me that congregations were seeing real results in major cities that experience four seasons (read: no reliable outdoor running) and that she knew of rural churches turning their sanctuaries into exercise havens on ‘off-hours,’ not on Sundays, not during week-day prayer meetings.

I grew up going to a wonderful United Methodist Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, and then in Washington.  Today, I attend services at both Episcopal and Methodist churches in New York.  In all the inspiring and deeply resonant sermons I’ve heard from the pulpit through the years, I have never heard diet or exercise mentioned, though I do know the Methodist Church and others are encouraging their ministers and staff to get healthy – to eat right, to walk more, to be an example to their congregations. If The Daniel Plan has even a fraction of the reach “The Purpose Driven Life” has had, people in churches, synagogues and temples around the country – including me – may be hearing a new message soon.