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Angela Tilby: Frequenting the gym does not guarantee a long life

07 October 2022

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EVERY time I read a weekend supplement, I am bombarded with advice on how to live better and longer. What to eat: current wisdom suggests 30 different vegetables and fruit per week, to help the jolly gut flora increase and multiply. And those fruit and veg should be of different colours, a health rainbow. Then there are the 150 minutes of moderate exercise (hard enough to talk but not to sing a festal Te Deum), or 75 intense minutes (heavy breathing, no talk), plus weights and stretches. Oof. (That’s an involuntary sound made by the unfit when rising from a chair).

Lose weight, get out into the countryside, and, above all, think positive. All good advice, of course; but it leaves open the question what these better and longer years are actually for. If it is just to congratulate myself on keeping time at bay, it seems rather pointless. Instead of living a few years longer, perhaps I should be making room for someone else on our crowded planet.

But what worries more is the effect of all this relentless health advice on those, who, in spite of keeping the rules, are still struck down, by cancer, heart disease, or one of the slowly disabling neurological conditions. Advice on keeping a healthy lifestyle is based on statistics and averages and comparative risks, and they are true on a macro scale.

But, at an individual level, life does not always reward those who keep the rules. There is more than there might appear to be in the Lord’s words “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” Contemporary advice suggests that we can add years if we only try hard enough. (Get thee to the gym. . .). But, however often we sweat our stuff, we are not immune from our genes, or from accident, or sheer chance.

It’s cruel when those who are suffering from severe illness feel that they can influence the progress of disease by sheer mental effort, and feel driven to adopt that heroic positivity that others describe as “battling”. It is heartless ignorance to tell those suffering from, for example, post-viral illness, that they should pull themselves together.

We have our share of physical and mental suffering to bear in this life, and part of our job on earth is to bear one another’s burdens, not blame them. We need to balance the lesson of the Book of Job — that our sicknesses and disabilities reflect tensions in the fabric of the universe which only God can resolve — with the lesson of the Letter to the Romans: that all things work together for good to those who love God. Meanwhile, the Spirit helps us in our weakness and, sometimes, drives us to the gym for good measure.

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