No Pain, No Gain

by Joanie Butman

My exercise routines have evolved over the years much like my spirituality, which comes with its own type of daily workout. Since my earliest memory, I’ve been in a tug of war with the sinful nature of my body and my soul.

The physical battle began with Jack LaLanne, known as the first fitness superhero. He must have been because he helped me unload 25 pounds of “baby fat” in the SEVENTH grade. This while the nuns were heaping at least 25 pounds of guilt on my impressionable soul. What could I possibly have done at that point? Somehow, being a chatty Catholic put me on a fast track to hell. My fate was sealed when a confiscated note I was passing to a friend landed me under the statue of Mary while the entire school prayed on my behalf. For years I was convinced my soul was just as damned as most of my subsequent diet and exercise programs, which led to a constant effort of working to earn something I’d had all along – God's love.

Just as fruitless, Buns of Steel failed to produce anything close to resembling the shapely derriere on the cover, and Jane Fonda’s battle cry, Go for the Burn!, still haunts me along with the visual of the signature leg warmers she donned for every video. No pain, no gain was the fitness credo of my youth. I’ve spent a lifetime obsessing over ten pounds – just different ones. When I was 125, I yearned to be 115. When I was 135, I struggled to regain my 125 status, which in hindsight looked better than I originally thought. A wise friend finally passed along the facts of life regarding body image: “Chances are, whatever your body is today, five years from now you are going to be longing to have it back, so relax and enjoy it.” I wish I’d learned that piece of wisdom sooner. It would have saved me endless hours of torture trying to force my body into a shape it was never meant to be. All those years fretting about my weight, and I was never satisfied with where I was until I was no longer there.

Now that I am just north of 135, I am painfully aware that aside from getting sick again, 125 is not going to happen. Not because I couldn’t achieve that goal, it’s just that it doesn’t seem so important anymore. The truth of the matter is I’ve reached a point in my life where I enjoy food more than I enjoy being thin. However, I do continue a fitness routine for health, not looks.

On the spiritual front, once I realized that I couldn’t earn my way into God’s graces—and better yet, that someone else had already done it for me—I was free to begin the kind of heart-healthy workouts that are far more effective and beneficial for me as well as everyone else in my life.

Much like those ten pounds I stressed about all my life, so it is with sin. The people, situations and circumstances change, but it is generally an ongoing battle with the same underlying issues: impatience, fear, lack of self control, short temper. This isn’t True Confessions so I will keep my less obvious ones to myself, but you get the picture. They may manifest themselves in different ways, but if you analyze much of human behavior, it can be reduced to a short list of repeat offenses. That’s why God only needed Ten Commandments.

Whether I am being tempted by a burger and fries versus an apple or a smile versus a snarl at someone who is pushing my buttons, it seems like I am always bumping up against the same elephant in the room - ME. Self indulgence or self control. It’s just that simple. Even knowing the consequences, there are more times than I care to admit that I choose to throw caution to the wind and eat whatever I want or say and do whatever I want. In both situations, there are always consequences – some more costly than others. My weaknesses know no boundaries, which brings me back to the workouts. I know the areas I need to strengthen – not once but with a consistent discipline on a daily basis. It needs to be a life-long endeavor. I often remind myself, "If this is what I'm like working out, I don't ever want to find out what I'd be like without it." It's what keeps me going. However, we do need to adjust our routines to accommodate for our changing bodies and minds.

As a result, I’ve adopted a gentler approach to fitness on both fronts. I was leaving my house recently and met a man with a unique exercise style. He was wearing suit pants, a dress shirt, sneakers, carrying an extra large coffee and a LIT cigar. Oh, and a HUGE smile. I commented to him how I liked his technique but regret not taking the time to find out more and get the name of his workout philosophy. It seemed to fit my new, kinder, gentler criteria. I don't carry coffee or a cigar, but my 'walkie talkies' and yoga are the extent of my training these days. They satisfy body and soul as I put on my Christian music and chat with God about my day, my life, anything that comes to mind. Then I listen for His response. I get some of my best inspirations on the walking path around my neighborhood. I consider it sacred ground. Maybe that man discovered the same thing. No wonder he was smiling.

After a certain age, “That which doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger,” is no longer applicable in the physical sense. And sometimes, as in my case, often makes you feel worse. If it hurts when you are doing it, guaranteed it is going to hurt even more later. I was at a recent doctor visit explaining how painful it is to run. Incredulous, the doctor looked at me like I was a moron (and rightfully so) and gave his sage advice, “THEN STOP RUNNING! You’d never know you’d been gutted like a fish twice if you would just stop trying so hard to stay in shape. Get yourself a good book, some bonbons and relax.” Finally, medical advice I will have no problem following.

My physical and spiritual evolution followed different courses but similar patterns with just as many fits and starts, fads and crash courses. I spent years trying to lose ten pounds and the weighty guilt my Catholic school experience instilled. What did I learn? That there is no quick fix to fight the effects of gravity and time or my natural instinct to feed the monster within. After all these years, in regard to my physical and spiritual well-being, I’ve finally accepted the reality that I need to be:

  1. More kind and gentle to my body and soul.
  2. More forgiving of myself and others.
  3. More accepting of my limitations and those of others.
  4. More thankful that I am still here to experience getting old and fat AND for the many blessings I enjoy every day.

Until we die, we are all a work in progress as we gather wisdom through life experience: trial and error, failures and successes, love and loss. There are lessons to be gained in all circumstances, but it is our choice as to what we take away from every experience. While No Pain, No Gain isn’t a recommended approach to physical exercise at my age, and never pleasant as spiritual training, I can attest to its efficacy in my faith journey. I have definitely learned more through my pain and discomfort than my blessings. In fact, I’ve come to recognize pain and discomfort as its own kind of blessing, teaching lessons that will last longer than the aches and pains of exercise and with results that will have eternal impact. I may never have Buns of Steel, but I have achieved a certain steely perseverance in my faith walk, which will serve me better and longer.