London Times  -  Health

May 30, 2003

Nuns on the run

The sisters at St Gregory's in downtown New York were stressed out, until they discovered workout classes

IT’S “THE RESURRECTION” and it goes like this. Stand up straight — no, straighter! — breathe in. Now stretch out your arms and try to touch your toes. Slo-w-ly. Run your hands down your thighs as you go. Hold in those abdominals! And, sisters, your back is as straight as a table top, remember. Straight as a rod. That’s it. Now let’s go back up. Are you ready, people? Tighten those buttocks, stretch out the arms. Breathe out. Aaaah. And all together now: “And so I rise.”

For the Dominican nuns of the Convent of St Gregory’s in Queens, the rough-and-tumble, blue-collar suburb of New York City, doing the Resurrection — one of the more originally named moves in their new exercise class —is the ecclesiastical equivalent of completing a double back flip.

Every week, whether it’s in the recreation room previously devoted to crocheting, or the conference room usually given over to ecumenical projects, the nuns of St Dominic’s congregate for their 45- minute workout: abs, lats, glutes or pecs — no muscle is left untoned.

Five months ago there were no such classes. Nuns who wanted to shape up, or even just stretch their legs, faced a stark choice: long, often solitary walks, or brave the local gym. Hmm, thought the St Gregory’s nuns (average age 72). Maybe this crocheting business isn’t so bad after all.

Then along came Debbie Mandel, a five-foot-nothing former English teacher. Just over 40, Debbie now specialises in teaching exercise to the over-fifties, although not specifically to nuns. She is concerned that people stop exercising as they age — a mistake, especially considering the increased health risks: “Heart disease, obesity, diabetes . . . many of these things are preventable. We must make fitness part of our everyday routines.”

But exercise has another function and this, as far as the nuns of St Gregory’s are concerned, is crucial. Exercise is a stress-buster, and they, perhaps in common with nuns elsewhere, are very, very stressed.

So here they are, four of the stressed sisters, sitting in their common room. Certainly Sisters Mary, Annette, Clare and Peggy don’t seem to exhibit any of the classic hallmarks of stress but rather seem quite cheery, sipping their coffees and erupting periodically into shouts of thigh-slapping laughter (Sister Clare’s risqué stories of her short-lived career as a secretary prompt particularly hearty guffaws: “I was proposed to twice before I became a sister. One guy, I told him I was going to enter the convent. He says, ‘If it was another man I could fight him but I won’t mess around with God!’”)

But, as Sister Peggy points out, the nuns spend only a fraction of their day sitting around telling jokes: “We spend a lot of time giving and not receiving,” she says. “Imagine, you’re listening and talking to people who have families in Iraq, and some of them are filled with anxiety. You have to let go of what you’ve heard. You can’t take that all in. Prayer and meditation and exercise help us to let go.”

Mandel favours a holistic approach to exercise. Her first book, Turn On Your Inner Light, is a curious fusion of self-help and fitness in which chapters have titles such as Training For When You Are Afraid (push-ups should help) and Training for Divorce (try lunges or t’ai chi).

It is this approach that prompted Sister Peggy to contact Mandel about devising an exercise class tailored specifically to nuns, to address the health and fitness needs of an ageing intellectual community, some of whom are wheelchair-bound.

If the response to Mandel’s classes started out as a trickle, it is now a torrent — her book Changing Habits: the Sister’s Work Out is published later this year. Every week up to 35 nuns from New York State take part in the classes. Out of state, news is travelling fast: later this month a large convent in Pennsylvania is flying Mandel in for a demonstration.

Her classes kick off with a half-hour talk about nutrition and wellbeing in which she might commend the virtues of peanut butter or deliver a brief talk on righteous anger (nuns feel it too). Next comes the workout proper, followed by meditation. Mandel tailors her classes to suit the participants. She came up with the Resurrection just before Easter, the Iron Cross (stand up straight with your arms out “like they’re nailed”) just after Christmas. Was nobody offended? “Not a bit,” says Sister Annette. “We loved the fact that Debbie was so innovative. These are words we can relate to, it makes the whole thing much more fun for us.”

In communal sessions, the nuns may pass a 7lb ball around the class, do push-ups against a wall, squats against a chair or balance on inflatable stability discs.

Have Mandel’s classes made a significant difference to the lives of the sisters?

“I used to have difficulty getting out of a chair,” says Sister Annette, who is in her late seventies. “After one of Debbie’s classes I feel 20 years younger. I feel a burden has been lifted from my shoulders.”