The Soul Series: Fitness

FitnessLast week we talked about the fourth pillar of holistic health in general, physical health. In the next few installments of this series, I’d like to have a look at the components that make it up in a few more details. I will start with fitness because it is the one that is usually used as a synonym, but also one that can be dangerous for Catholics as it’s often idolised even among Christians, in an attempt to steer clear from more gnostic views of the body/soul relationship. You might be familiar with the emphasis on physicality that is almost militaristic in contemporary views of “traditional masculinity” such as those behind the popular spiritual exercise called Exodus 90. Under their Asceticism rules, fairly close to the top (at least on the website as it is at time of writing), regular and intense exercise is part of their practices that are seen as both penance and an offering. 

I want to give the benefit of the doubt that it was a suggestion rather than a prescription, although the language seems to suggest the latter, but even if the ableism was not intentional there is a lot of it in discourses of what makes a true Catholic man, especially in traditional circles, that would present many saints as not real men of God. Often we think of sainthood as being about perfection but we colour our perception of what perfection means with earthly views. We saw last week in CCC 2288-2290 a warning against excessive positivism about the body, but that doesn’t mean Catholics cannot value fitness or even competitive sports. 

Anyway, the basic definition of fitness is “a set of attributes that people have or achieve that relates to the ability to perform physical activity.” And physical activity is anything that relates to the body, not our ability to lift weights at the gym. This article on Medical News Today breaks down the different components of fitness, and it’s worth checking out if you want a better understanding of it. Exercise, then, is not a goal in itself, but one way in which we use our bodies to achieve this end result in a society when most of us sit at a desk all day. If you are a stay-at-home mother chasing 5 children under the age of 6 all day you probably don’t need to beat yourself up if the gym is the last place where you want to go even if other women in your circumstances love it. My husband is very strict with his exercise regime despite having a job that keeps him on his feet all day, because he feels that it helps him with the demands of his job, while I need to reach for the Ventolin just thinking about it and only hit the mat because I have a hernia and no saintly desire to share in the pains of Our Lord through sciatica. 

One starting point for us Catholics is to examine our motivations when we approach fitness. It isn’t sinful to be interested in fitness for the sake of it, the way others are interested in literature or art. St John Paul II and Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati are well-known mountaineers who found God in the heights. Whether it’s running, the gym, swimming, or a group sport, these activities give us endorphins and we are meant to enjoy them. The problems begin when we cannot separate our identity from it, and we make an idol of being strong, we judge others for not meeting these standards and would not be able to let go if we ever became weak or God asked us to let go of it anyway because the season to glorify Him through those gifts is over. 

Perhaps attachment to the thing itself isn’t your problem. Excessive exercise is often one of the way in which a person with eating disorders compensates, but even without going to that extreme many exercise in order to look a certain way. Perhaps it’s the pressure to be seen as masculine, or the way you destress instead of bringing your cares to God. There are many ways in which we can have a wrong attitude to fitness, but the Church in her wisdom has given us the example of what a good one looks like. 

Physical benefits 

The physical benefits of exercise are repeated ad nauseam, often in ways that only increase the shame of those who cannot move. However, that doesn’t change that they are there, and if we are able we should make the effort to reap them so that we can be better supported in the demands of our state in life. In fact, if you have ever struggled with prayer while sick, you can see why it’s such a fundamental aspect of our life as Christians. The key is that we should only strive to be the best possible version of ourselves, even if it sounds like a cheesy Matthew Kelly slogan. There is no canonical obligation that being good stewards of God’s creation (our body) requires a HIIT workout or a 60 min spin class. It can be as simple as getting off the bus a stop earlier and walk the rest of the way after a day sitting down in the office and then public transport, or stretches and rest when you have a physically demanding job that keeps you on your feet for 8-12h a day. Only you can discern what you can and should do in each season of life, it’s between you and the Lord and you shouldn’t compare yourself (although I know it’s easier said than done). 

Building virtue
Disciplines are one of the ways in which we build virtues. They require intentionality in the way we set our priorities and detachment when we fail to meet our own expectations. While seeing acedia as merely laziness is incorrect, laziness is also a spiritual danger and so having a consistent routine that demands something of you is a great antidote to that (unless you suffer from perfectionism, in which case it becomes a double-edged sword). If you are not someone who enjoys exercising, adding it to your routine is a way in which you overcome your tendency to focus on yourself and seek pleasure. If you are the opposite kind, perhaps your lesson is in finding balance instead of pushing yourself too hard. Perhaps you are one of the lucky ones who have no lesson to learn in this regard because your relationship with fitness is a loosely positive one without excesses, which is great. In that case, you are maintaining the virtue instead, and protecting yourself from the two pitfalls.
At the end of the day, our focus should return back to God. Does this activity help me grow closer to Him and/or be His hands and feet in the world? Do not discount the impact it has on our mood and mental health either, being joyful in our days because we took time for ourselves to do something we enjoy that gives us happy hormones is important too. 
My favourites

Ok, I mention them almost as frequently as Blessed is She, which I guess it’s only proof of my love for them: Pietra Fitness’ Theology of the Body 21-day series.

An easy option that has no wrong way of doing it, the dance-based exercise programme Body Groove. It can be a bit woo-woo at times but it’s a lot of fun. 

If you want the Barre workout of the stars from the comfort of your home, Barrecore have an online studio.

If you are looking for a free option, the Nike Training Club app is a great one which also acts as a tracker if you want to log in what you have been doing elsewhere. It syncronises with their running app too if that’s your jam. I have used it for years.

Rooted in the word

For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by God’s word and by prayer. (…) Have nothing to do with profane myths and old wives’ tales. Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.

1 Timothy 4:4-5; 7-8
 New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised Catholic Edition (NRSVACE)

New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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