A TYPE of Christian - the muscular sort - often points to St
Paul as the prime athlete, who shows us the way to spiritual and
physical salvation. (Don't they know what a metaphor is?)
When Blessed John Paul II used St Paul-the-athlete to appeal to
a generation of pagans, he was really doing what St Paul was doing
- using a popular image of pagan life to communicate his point.
St Paul, from his own account of his activities and lifestyle,
does not seem to have had much leisure for the athletic dedication
he describes. Stressful as his lifestyle was, he seems to have more
in common with most of us when he writes in Romans: "But how to
perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I
do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do."
Listening recently to a group of adults who were bemoaning their
inability to do what they know is good for them (and would enjoy if
they only got round to doing it), and wondering what it is within
us that holds us back, St Paul-the-over-stressed seems more
WE WERE talking about meditation rather than exercise, but if we
had got on to exercise, I reckon it would have been the same story.
Textbooks for personal trainers have a large section on how to
motivate people to exercise. Nine times out of ten, this is why
people employ a personal trainer. They know that they should be
taking exercise, but they want someone else to make them do it - by
an artful mixture of cajoling, bullying, and boundless praise.
The World Health Organisation is warning that most of our
children will suffer long-term damage to their health because they
are no longer physically active. The present generation of adults
must take responsibility for this: its priorities are driven by
different agendas - simply compare the far bigger fuss in the media
about our children's exam results.
Health is not rated as nearly as important as potential earning
power, and perhaps this is because, in the long term, our society
gives better health and longer life to those with the greatest
Meanwhile, we have ensured that our streets have a reputation
for being too unsafe and toxic for children to walk to school, or
hang out in; we have sold playing fields for "development"; and few
of us have the time or inclination to facilitate young people in
WHY are most of us so uncertain in our commitment to exercise,
while so persuaded of its benefits? I think it is because it
requires a reordering of priorities, time being the biggest problem
we offer as an excuse. And time may be at the very heart of our
The books I have at home on massage therapy and Pilates opened
my eyes to the extraordinary complexity of the human body. We tend
to picture this invisible self we live with, if we do at all, as a
medical diagram, full of component parts, like a machine. Modern
medicine has tended to isolate these physical parts, in order to
diagnose and fix problems.
Yet the reality of the human body, as many somatic
practitioners, neurologists, and anyone who conducts a post-mortem
knows, is that it is a wonderful web of physical and emotional
events. Even its component parts, if you want to analyse them thus,
are intricately connected.
HORMONES regulate each cell's behaviour in a feedback loop, so
that small physical, mental, and emotional changes are constantly
monitored and adjusted to keep the body in equilibrium. We tend to
imagine that the body's responses work in a fairly predictable
cause-and-effect way, but the intricacy of the body's regulation is
infinitely complex. Most of these changes take place below the
level of our awareness, and are in a constant dynamic flow.
Movement, at the individual body's pace and range of ability, is
the natural state of all of us creatures, plant or animal - even
when at rest: "In him we live and move and have our being".
Exercise is repetitive movement; it soothes the mind, and is
helpful to bones and muscles; nourishes each cell with oxygen,
de-toxifying each cell with every out-breath; and drains the body
of the stress hormones that we cleverly produce to help us to deal
THE trouble begins when the predator is our boss (you are not
supposed to run away from them, nor tackle them to the ground), or
your own perception of time is running away from you as you sit at
a traffic light, or stand in a supermarket queue.
Being mere creatures, we are time-bound, mortal beings, all too
aware of time running away. St Paul's distinction between flesh and
spirit, and Christ's own constant admonitions to his followers to
worry less about the body and more about the Kingdom, are
superficially easy to translate into: "Don't spend time worrying
about your physical well-being or health, when there's bringing
souls into the Kingdom to worry about."
Perhaps this is a false dichotomy. When Christians say that they
have not got the time (or the space) to exercise, it may mean that,
like Christ himself, or St Paul after him, they are engaged on a
politically and socially risky walk, day in and day out, preaching
and teaching the gospel without regard for their personal health
BUT it may mean that they do not regard their health as
important as packing in more work, time with people, caring for
dependants, or pursuing a passion such as painting or Facebook into
their day. Which is their absolute and proper right. Except that,
if we are intended, by God, to be the embodied creatures we are, in
whom the physical and spiritual are intimately connected, perhaps
that is an illogical choice.
And even more illogical is the Christian attitude that what is
mortal is not worth cherishing, simply because it is mortal. If
that were the case, and the Holy Trinity took that view, where
would any of us be?
Most of us do not rest, walk, or dance enough - and most of us
eat far too much. Exercise creates and deepens holistic
physiological effects, and also beneficent psychological effects:
repetition, calming/boring, concentration, stretching.
strengthening. The breath of life is as vital as the words of life,
and the reception of the words are as dependent on the breath and
brain function as anything else.
This care is not vanity, or dutiful drill, but a humble
recognition that even our mind and spirit - our so-called "higher"
faculties - are intimately bound up with our plumbing and
ventilation systems. The brain and the emotions are as dependent on
efficient oxygenation and waste disposal as they are on good
teaching. In our burdened life, a daily commitment to move is the
essential counter-balance simply to care for ourselves.