Tia Howell didn’t invent the idea that mind, body and spirit are intimately connected, but the 24-year-old personal fitness coach in Mount Holly, N.C., lives it as she would a calling.
She’s also among one of the fastest-growing groups in modern American religion. She is a “spiritual but not religious” person.
Researchers for the past decade have noted the rise in this demographic — especially among younger generations — of people who don’t claim affiliation with any particular church or denomination.
It took Howell several years of deep seeking and personal pain to develop a faith that has become inspiring to herself and others in her career as a fitness coach.
The journey began in the Southern Baptist church she attended as a child with her grandmother in Waco, N.C.
She was grateful for the experience but also came to be unsettled by the hierarchy and controlling behaviors of some, she said. “I saw the power plays as members fought over their positions in church. And I would ask myself if people in church were really living out what the Scriptures teach.”
She was beginning to have her own interpretations of the Bible: “I started to ask myself, what does all this mean to me?”
The death of a close friend led to a season of grief that included reservations about religious belief and practices, she said. “I was angry at God and I would scream at him and demand answers to questions about life and death. I also asked, ‘If I don’t go to church, does it matter?’”
While Howell no longer participates in organized Christianity, she said her faith has grown stronger: “It’s about a very personal relationship with God and trying to understand things for myself. I do this through meditation, prayer and always keeping a written journal.”
That relationship provided the courage to launch Life with Tia and a new career as a fitness entrepreneur, she said. “My previous job situation was difficult, and I felt that was God pushing me to step out of my comfort zone and start my own business.”
That faith-based confidence was vital in helping Howell when the pandemic occurred two months after the start of her business. In response, she created and launched a virtual platform through which to train her clients using her mind-body-soul approach.
“I say I am always being divinely guided, divinely supported and God always knows the bigger picture.”
“All of this has positively impacted me as a businesswoman by forcing me to step outside of my comfort zone to find ways to be innovative and supportive without being face-to-face,” she said.
Howell has a mantra she says every day. “I say I am always being divinely guided, divinely supported and God always knows the bigger picture.”
“Being able to help other people improve their health, their mental wellness and spirituality is something God directly placed on me,” said Howell, a 2019 graduate of Gardner-Webb University who majored in exercise science.
“I believe one of the biggest ways we can be an example of the image of God is to be of service to other people, to love and help and encourage each other and to embody that sense of community and service in everything we do,” she explained.
Howell launched Lift with Tia in January 2020 to help clients achieve emotional and physical balance through a combination of strength training, healthy eating, goal setting and daily life management. The spiritualty underlying these practices can be openly or subtly incorporated, depending on individual preferences.
“But you can’t have one without the other,” she said. “Being fit spiritually ties into your confidence and self-image and self-worth, and it’s from there where our daily behaviors come from.”
Belmont, N.C., resident and mom Marsha Perry said she can testify that Howell’s integrated approach to physical and spiritual fitness has transformed her outlook on life.
“I’ve had personal training before, but with Tia I’m not just looking good, I’m feeling good,” said Perry, who has trained with Howell for more than a year.
“She’s not your average trainer. Mentally, she gets you to where you need to be. She checks in with me to make sure I am in the right head space, that I’m meal prepping and doing healthy things outside of training,” Perry said.
And because Perry is open to it, Howell brings God into the workout experience. “We pray about the things I have to do, about the where I need to be mentally in order to start training. She is consistently making sure I’m in the right space spiritually and in my heart.”
Perry added that the process has helped her through the COVID-19 pandemic. “I’ve been able to stay focused and be accountable and have courage because I know God is there and I know he’s got me.”