Adding Muscle to Spirit

By Caryn Eve Murray

August 3, 2003

Their faith may be firmer than their abs right now, but Debbie Eisenstadt Mandel isn't looking to turn these 10 Dominican sisters, clad in skirts instead of sweats, into women of iron.

With each pass of the 8-pound medicine ball, with each military press and wall push-up, she is helping them affirm, as much as firm.

"Nuns are a community that believes the body at best is a container for the soul," Mandel said. "So I went to this community that was all spiritual to see what their health was ... and it seemed out of balance." At the invitation of one of the nuns, Peggy Tully, and with the help of her own personal trainer, Frank Mikulka, the former English teacher from Lawrence devised her first workout for nuns, which she began offering a few months ago.

The 45-minute stress-reducing, strength-building exercises she teaches to the group of 60- to 88-year- olds at St. Gregory's in Bellerose is the same workout she teaches to a larger group at the order's mother house in Amityville. "We also have had sisters come from other orders. They crash. It's fun," she said.

Mandel, 52, who became a motivational speaker four years ago, also has done fitness training for new mothers, college professors, cancer patients and their families and even young students under stress. Nuns are the newest group for Mandel, who's writing a book, "Changing Habits," based on the experience, and who'll be discussing the workout with the nuns on WLIE/540 AM at 8:30 p.m. on Aug. 25.

The only child of Holocaust survivors, Mandel considers these sisters her soul sisters. Of course, it doesn't hurt that she was born in a convent hospital in Rome where, she quipped, "I was baptized a Jew."

Not that religion is even an issue here. Fitness is: "This is not just for nuns but all women. I mean, if I have an 88-year-old nun using a medicine ball and doing hard chair squats, why can't you?"

Copyright 2003, Newsday, Inc.