Zumba at the Saddleback Church / Robert Yager
A book on the technique has become a bestseller, augmented by apps, a cookbook, and a journal to help adherents to track their progress

On a warm evening at the Saddleback Church in Southern California, several dozen congregants in sweats and Lycras are star-jumping outside the Worship Centre. In a nearby tent, a Zumba class bops rhythmically to a Christian-themed dance track. Meanwhile, across the campus, yet another group is enjoying a “Walk and Worship” session: a brisk stroll that begins and ends with a prayer. It’s all part of the church’s wildly popular health and fitness regime, the Daniel Plan.

Jim Black, who for many years failed to practice what he preached as a physiotherapist, now leads one of the thrice-weekly Walk and Worship groups. Before he was introduced to the Daniel Plan in 2011, Black, 48, had attempted several diets without success; at 330lbs, he suffered from diabetes and other obesity-related conditions. But after two months on the new plan, he stopped taking any prescription medication. Within a year, he had shed 90lbs.

“Putting diet and exercise together isn’t anything new,” Black says. “But the difference with the Daniel Plan is the spiritual component. What captured me was the idea that our bodies are not our own; they’re on loan, and someday we have to give them back and be accountable for them. When you have something that’s not yours, you take better care of it.”

Jim Black, in blue, with health programme participants (Robert Yager)

The Daniel Plan was originally conceived by evangelical pastor Rick Warren, who founded Saddleback in 1980, when he was just 25. Today it is one of the biggest mega-churches in the US, with eight campuses in California and a further four overseas. In 2009, Warren delivered the invocation at President Barack Obama’s first inauguration.

It was during a baptism ceremony the following year that he had his Damascene moment regarding diet. At Saddleback, people are baptised just like Jesus: by lowering them bodily into the water and lifting them out again. On the day in question, Warren personally dunked more than 800 parishioners. “Based on the average weight of Americans, I lifted more than 145,000 pounds,” he later wrote. “I actually felt the weight of America’s health problem.”

It occurred to Warren that the church had been nourishing the soul at the expense of the body. In his subsequent bestseller, The Daniel Plan: 40 Days to a Healthier Life, he quotes from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies.”

Warren was himself overweight, and at a weekly sermon in January 2011 he invited his vast congregation to join him in losing a few pounds. He enlisted psychiatrist Daniel Amen and Dr Mark Hyman, a family doctor who has cared for the Clintons, to shape a health programme. He then named the plan after the Daniel of the Bible, who refused to eat the wine and meat proffered by the dastardly King Nebuchadnezzar, and instead consumed water and a healthy five-a-day.

The Saddleback Church in southern California was founded in 1980 (Robert Yager)

In the first year of the Daniel Plan, some 12,000 Saddleback members supposedly dropped a collective 250,000lbs. Warren himself lost 65lbs. The book, now translated into 15 languages, has been augmented by apps, a cookbook, and a Daniel Plan journal to help adherents track their progress. The church hosts fitness classes and organises a range of healthy activities such as hiking, mountain biking and triathlon training. Outdoor fitness equipment peppers the 120-acre campus.

The church’s vending machines are now 50 per cent stocked with Daniel Plan-friendly snacks and drinks, while the campus cafeteria serves a Daniel Plan menu seven days a week, including gluten-free pasta, kale salad, salmon tacos and banana-berry smoothies. Head chef Carey Johnson says he and his wife have lost more than 100lbs between them this year.

Around 70 per cent of American adults are overweight, and historically the church has been tolerant of – and even complicit in – the burgeoning obesity crisis. The signature dishes of a typical, Middle American church gathering are fried chicken and potato salad. “It has been a shortcoming of the church,” says Dee Eastman, director of the Daniel Plan. “Not only have we neglected the body, we’ve also almost fostered some of the negative behaviour.”

Warren’s solution to the failures of the church, and of conventional diet plans, was to combine the teachings of the two: the Daniel Plan is based around five ‘F’s: Food, Fitness, Focus, Friends and Faith. The first three are the remit of Doctors Amen and Hyman, the last two are Pastor Warren’s department. Daniel Plan participants are encouraged to motivate one another towards health and wellbeing as a congregation, guided by scripture.

The "Walk and Worship" session involves a brisk stroll and begins and ends with a prayer (Robert Yager)

“Most life change happens in groups,” Eastman says. “This whole idea of changing health as a community has been revolutionary for all of us, and it’s something we really want to pass on. Mark Hyman doesn’t come from a Christian faith background... but he says the obesity epidemic is a social problem – and it needs a social cure.”

For 2015, Saddleback’s Daniel Plan “Wellness Faculty” has put together a new, 26-week health and fitness curriculum for churches. On 15 January, after the inevitable over-eating of the Christmas season, Warren will host a live simulcast with Amen, Hyman and other Daniel Plan leaders, to spread the good word about its success to Christian groups everywhere.

The Daniel Plan also nods towards a sixth ‘F’: the Fear of God – or, rather, of his rival. “Satan does not want you living a healthy life,” Warren writes, “because that honours God.”