UT Tyler

Sharing His Passion

Fitness Expert Helps Improve Health for Bodies - and Souls

Jimmy Peña says getting in shape is not a question of "how," but "why."

Peña received his master's degree in clinical exercise physiology from The University of Texas at Tyler in 1998 and has been helping people discover both the reasons they should get in shape and how to accomplish good health ever since.

He has worked as an exercise physiologist for celebrities such as Tyler Perry, LL Cool J and Mario Lopez. Peña served as the fitness director for Muscle & Fitness and Muscle & Fitness Hers magazines and has authored and edited hundreds of articles on training and fitness, making him one of the nation's most published training experts.

"I'm an expert in changing the body and I can tell you that 'how' is easy," Peña said. "But all the 'how' in the world will not get this country moving. We are more educated and unhealthy now than ever. Find out 'why' you need to get fit and the rest is easy.''

The "why,'' he said, "might be looking at you in the mirror, sitting across from you at the dinner table ... or, it could be your relationship with God."

In response to this last reason, Peña launched PrayFit.com and soon after released the best-selling book "PrayFit: Your Guide to a Healthy Body and Stronger Faith.''

"PrayFit'' is a 28-day fitness devotional with exercise programs, nutrition tips and meal plans. Peña says it combines two of his greatest passions – faith and fitness.

"I committed my life to Christ back in eighth grade," Peña said. "And I grew up in sports, active, fit."

Peña said his love for fitness really took off in college as he learned how to shape and mold his body through weight training along with a group of friends he affectionately calls the "Russell Rats," named for the facility they used for workouts.

He graduated from college with a business degree. But it was in the graduate program at UT Tyler that Peña discovered how to use his personal passion for physical fitness to help others.

Peña and his wife, Loretta, were living and working in Austin when he called UT Tyler and spoke with Dr. James Schwane, a health and kinesiology professor who was chair of the department at the time. Peña had been exploring different graduate programs, but during that phone conversation he felt in his heart that UT Tyler was where he needed to be, he recalled.

"I entered the clinical exercise physiology program without really knowing what to expect, but because I trusted Dr. Schwane, I trusted the program," said Peña. "The extra time Dr. Schwane took to help me come up with a question to study and explore for my master's thesis changed my life forever."

Peña studied the impact of endurance training on muscle size and strength, a study that got the attention of Muscle & Fitness magazine, where he later began writing and launched his fitness career.

Over the years, Peña began to see the importance of connecting a healthy body with a healthy soul. He likes to quote C.S. Lewis, "You don't 'have' souls, you 'are' souls. You 'have' bodies.''

"PrayFit'' is the most progressive book he has ever written and gives Christians a tool to exercise obedience to God in their bodies as well as their souls, Peña said.

"Get plugged into a good church and find someone to train with. That is what worked for me," he said. "Feed the brain, stress the body and be held accountable. Make yesterday's best, today's quest."

The PrayFit program is already moving beyond the book's pages into a popular DVD series. Peña's "PrayFit 33-Day Total Body Challenge'' DVD has been ranked No. 1 on Amazon's "Hot New Releases'' chart in the faith and spirituality section.

PrayFit also partners with churches and communities to launch the program across the country and encourage people, said Peña, "to simply be better stewards of the bodies we've been given. We're working toward our goal of being in 10,000 churches in 10 years.''

Peña said he is grateful for his time at UT Tyler, which helped launch his life's work.

He added, "I'll never forget answering one of Dr. Schwane's questions with, 'Heart ... it takes heart, Dr. Schwane.' And though I was completely wrong to whatever he asked – and trust me, my classmates to this day remind me of that horrible answer – it turns out I was absolutely right. It takes real guts ... real heart to exercise faith and the professors and staff at UT Tyler helped me realize it.''