Like approximately 80 million other Americans, I set some fitness goals for the new year. And like about 79 million of them, I would like to give up. Recently I came across a blog post about the “cold, hard truths” of exercise that helped explain my mediocre progress so far. Experts say that for exercise to be truly effective in changing your body, it has to be hard. Like uncomfortably hard.
Easy, low-intensity exercise brings many benefits, such as improved mood and better sleep. However, research suggests that if you want to achieve measurable biometric change — losing weight, building muscle, lowering blood pressure, rehabilitating an injury, or improving a triathlon time — an easy stroll won’t do it.
Whatever your starting fitness level, you have to do the difficult things to get results. Furthermore, over time, that which was once hard will become easy and thus less effective at producing change. Simply put, you have to get sweaty and out of breath.
This is unwelcome news for me, a self-smug daily jogger. I have an early-morning exercise routine that I enjoy. It makes me feel productive and healthy. But it’s pretty easy for me, so I have unsurprisingly made little progress toward my 2021 fitness goals.
So too, I’m afraid, with the spiritual life. I’m not aware of any research to back this up, but I suspect it is quite easy for Christians with a healthy spiritual routine to become complacent and stall their spiritual growth. We need to take up some hard things. Maybe it’s a difficult conversation with a loved one, or a visit to the confessional, or putting one’s faith into action through advocacy. Whatever your level of spiritual fitness, what do you need to do to change your heart?
Lent seems to come at the perfect time every year, just as new year’s resolutions are losing steam. Ash Wednesday is an opportunity to recommit to growth, both physical and spiritual.
For Catholics, Lent is a decidedly carnal season. Many use Lent as a time to give up something enjoyable, such as sweets, social media or soda. The church teaches that God wants us to experience pleasure. The delights of this world — a comfy couch, a rich dessert, a video game, a glass of wine — are good. In excess, however, their goodness can become distorted and they prevent us from a right relationship with God and others.
I’ve sometimes heard spiritual leaders suggest an additive approach to Lent that seeks to develop virtues instead of fasting from pleasures. Call a friend, do acts of kindness, or spend time meditating. Those aren’t bad ideas, but I don’t want to overlook the importance of physical sacrifice.
Our faith is incarnational, sensory and bodily. The practices of fasting and giving up other physical pleasures is commendable. Sweating out a tough workout will, over time, change your body. Practicing self-denial will, over 40 days, tame the spirit. Physical sacrifices have the power to focus our attention on God. They also sharpen our appreciation for pleasure. After fasting, feasting carries new meaning.
Ours is a faith for the senses. It’s why we have ashes and incense, bread and wine. Catholics, if you want to change, put in the difficult work. This Lent, let’s work up a spiritual sweat and perhaps a physical one too.
Dr. Karen Shadle is the director of the Archdiocese of Louisville Office of Worship.