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Get your body back on track

18 October 2013

Terence Handley MacMath considers the example set by St Paul on exercise

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 recognisable.

 

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 earning power.

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 organised games.

 

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 uncertainty.

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 with predators.

 

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 and comfort.

 

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.

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20 September 2021
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Author Jarel Robinson-Brown in conversation with Rev. Winnie Varghese.

25 September 2021
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With Stephen Cottrell, Peter Stanford, Lucy Winkett, and Rowan Williams.

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