We all know exercise is good for us. But our relationship with it is … complicated. Some of us are “yo-yo” exercisers. Our treadmills, weights, bikes, fitness apps, and gym memberships see bursts of use and then gather (real or metaphorical) dust for months at a time. Others worry that time spent on physical fitness is time taken away from more important things, such as spouse, children, or even our spiritual lives. Do fitness goals make me vain or obsessed with body image? And still others have what I call the “St. Augustine syndrome”: Lord, make me diligent with strength training — but not yet! They know what they ought to do but keep putting it off.
Here, several Catholic fitness experts share their conviction that we should enlist our faith in order to achieve a balanced, healthy attitude toward exercise. It can motivate us to keep going and, above all, to glorify God in our bodies (see 1 Corinthians 6:20).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that we are not two diverse elements — body and soul — temporarily pasted together. Rather, our body and soul form a single human nature (see CCC, 365). It is this unified nature that praises God and is brought to perfection through grace (see CCC, 364). That unity is clear to any of us when we engage in pious, bodily actions such as kneeling, bowing, and making the sign of the cross.
Conversely, it is difficult to pray and meditate well when we are sick or exhausted. Scripture tells us that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 6:19). Those temples deserve to be cared for! Taking time for health and physical fitness need not be in conflict with our spiritual goals. On the contrary, it can only help them.
School of perfection
Patience. Diligence. Perseverance. Self-denial. Have you ever noticed that successful athletes practice these natural virtues to an extreme degree? Those of us who are couch potatoes have something to learn from them. As Christians we already (hopefully) strive to exercise the same virtues as we love the unlovable, develop a prayer life, or defeat recurring temptations. Why not stretch those spiritual muscles by working on the physical ones? You might find a reciprocal effect between the two.
When actor and athlete Kaiser Johnson trains his clients in southern California, he often challenges dedicated athletes to turn the same willpower they use for marathon training toward improving their marriage and family relationships. Similarly, he challenges lazy believers to exert their wills in the physical realm.
“When we think of fitness training as vanity, we miss a great opportunity God gives us to practice virtues in our bodies on a daily basis,” he says. “Why does this type of self-discipline become ‘vanity’ simply because it is also good for our health?”
Johnson believes the “vanity” argument is using faith to justify a fear of commitment, when in fact “we should be drawing on our faith to do something that is good for both our bodies and our souls.”
Former Olympic skier Rebecca Dussault reminds us that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
“God loves us so much that he won’t leave us where we are. He is always calling us to the next level,” she says.
How do we know what the next level is? Often, Dussault says, it’s exactly the thing that we are resisting.
“If you don’t want to try kale in your diet, or do pushups, or make a Holy Hour, then chances are, you should,” she says.
Penance: It’s not just for Lent
The Christian discipline of penance or self-denial is urged on us first as a way to train our wills toward virtue, but also — especially in Catholic tradition — as a way to join ourselves to Christ in his self-giving sacrifice and assist him in the salvation of souls. The season of Lent imposes minimal fasting and abstinence on us, but the Church recommends regular penitential practice as a year-round way of life.
Faithfulness to a regular fitness routine can supply that — no hair shirts or bread-and-water diets required. Think about it: boredom, sweat, puffing breath, probably some aches later on as muscle tissue strains and repairs itself. Not to mention the annoyance of leaving a warm bed or a comfy couch behind in order to exercise.
With a long career in martial arts, personal training, and ballroom dance coaching, Dwight Davis knows that meeting long-term goals of physical excellence involves plenty of short-term discomfort. Since converting to the Catholic faith in 2012, he has embraced the concept of “offering it up” as a great way to give meaning to all those aches and pains.
“I offer up the suffering that comes from training for my family and for others who need it,” he says.
The balancing act for moms
But I have no time! There’s always so much going on. Time given to exercise is time taken away from my family!
Karen Barbieri, the co-founder of Pietra Fitness, understands.
“That’s exactly what I used to say! I was once very involved in sports and fitness, but once the kids came, I believed it would be selfish to continue,” she says.
Following the birth of her fourth child, Barbieri had severe back pain. She could barely walk, and the drug therapies her doctors tried had severe side effects. Desperate for relief, she began doing a small amount of stretching and strengthening exercise each day. Her body began to respond. She was able to increase her daily routine and eventually recovered her mobility and became pain-free. Out of this experience she developed her own strengthening program for women at any stage of life.
“Exercise didn’t take me away from my family; it gave me back to them! Being healthy and having more energy will make you more available to your family, not less,” she says.
To those who protest that they have no time for exercise, Dussault asks, “How is it working out for you to not exercise? Probably not great. If we are always left washing the dishes while everyone else enjoys the pie we slaved over, we’d become bitter. If you do not take time for your health, it won’t work out for you physically or emotionally.”
Dussault says women who complete her eight-week program tell her that their children urge them not to stop.
“When you acquire greater strength and stamina, your whole family will benefit,” she says. “Just get creative and find ways to do it, enlisting your family’s cooperation, or even participation.”
Dussault also suggests finding other moms with fitness goals, and taking turns at babysitting while the others exercise.
Making a start
If you haven’t exercised regularly for some time, don’t be afraid to start small and build up. Davis suggests beginning with 15 to 30 minutes, three times per week. Make this a combination of weights, stretching, and cardio. In addition, find opportunities throughout the day to take extra steps. For example, forego a prime parking space in favor of one that is farther away from a store entrance.
Dussault suggests walking or riding a bike to destinations (within a few miles of home) that you normally drive to.
“Have your husband drive the kids to wherever your family is headed on a Saturday while you ride a bike,” she says. “For the trip home, your husband can bike while you drive.”
Dussault also recommends more camping and hiking vacations instead of visits to theme parks.
“Even the worst camping trip is going to be more memorable than the time you spent standing in line for rides,” she says.
Lent is just around the corner. Devise a beginner’s plan now that will be already in place before Ash Wednesday (March 6 this year), then accelerate it as winter turns into spring. And adjust your attitude: This will not just be a Lenten practice but a way of life. Do this for yourself, your family, and for the glory of God, because “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
If treadmills and weights don’t appeal to you, there are other ways to build muscle and stamina. Dwight Davis believes that ballroom dancing is one of the best all-around exercises.
“Aside from being a good physical workout, it sharpens your brain because it engages many senses and works your memory,” he says. “In addition, the social or relational element is great for your mental health.”
The New England Journal of Medicine reported on June 19, 2003, that “participation in leisure activities is associated with a reduced risk of dementia.” Read the entire article at CDmag.net/2SGXn6D.
Prayer: Your fitness partner
No, exercise need not take away from your prayer time. It can actually add to it. The rosary, the Divine Mercy chaplet, and the Jesus Prayer are all easy to do while walking or running. (If the family rosary is a custom, then get your spouse and kids to walk with you and say it out loud!) If you do interval training (alternating periods of walking with slow jogging and fast running), then dedicate each interval to a specific prayer intention.
Talk to the Lord about each of your loved ones for 100 yards, then move on to praying for priests, for the pope, for the poor of your community, for an end to abortion, and so on. Tweak the usual custom of exercising to a favorite pop play list, and instead play a list of whatever hymns, chants, or Christian praise songs most inspire you to thank and glorify the Lord.
And how about that daily Scripture reading? Combine your workouts with an audio Bible app. You can listen to each day’s Mass readings on the USA Catholic Church app (from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) or download them from iTunes.
For guided workouts with embedded prayer and Catholic meditation, see Kaiser Johnson’s Grit & Glory book, and the Pietra Fitness program. Both are detailed in “Help from fitness experts” below.
Help from fitness experts
Kaiser Johnson: His book is Grit & Glory: Cross Training Your Body and Soul (Our Sunday Visitor, 2018). This book features daily workout plans that combine exercise, prayer, Scripture reading, and nutrition.
Rebecca Dussault: This former Olympian, now a mother of five, offers personal fitness and wellness training (in person, online, on Skype) for both serious athletes and the rest of us. Her specialty is helping moms to balance family, faith, food, and fitness. Visit her online at FitCatholicMom.com.
Karen Barbieri is the creator of Pietra Fitness, a strengthening and stretching class that includes prayer and meditation in the Catholic tradition. Get information about classes near you and purchase her DVDs at PietraFitness.com.
Dwight Davis is a martial artist, personal trainer, and ballroom dancing coach accepting clients in the greater Detroit area. He can be reached at (313) 575-6458.