“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.”
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
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.
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
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
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.
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!’”)
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.”
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).
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.
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
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.”
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.
Mandel’s classes made a significant difference to the lives of the
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.”