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Researchers Cite Exercise, Religious Links : Fitness: The body undergoes mental and physiological changes that the mind can interpret spiritually, they say.


WASHINGTON — Exercise and spirituality go hand in hand, and running can be a path toward a religious experience, according to researchers who have studied the connection.

"A biological mechanism is at work," said William C. Bushell, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology research scientist specializing in medicine and anthropology. "Whatever creator made the body had this in mind. It comes out in physiological science like a clear blueprint."

Exercise-induced mental and physiological changes, including the flood of body-made opiates that induces what's called the "runner's high," can create a change in consciousness, the researchers say.

"In that state, one feels a kind of expansiveness," said Thomas P. Kasulis, a professor at Ohio State University. "This guy who is running, he feels more integrated with his surroundings."

The body is undergoing changes that the mind can interpret spiritually, said Lawrence E. Sullivan, director of Harvard University's Center for the Study of World Religions. For instance, in some tribal cultures, physical ordeals produce visions, which spiritual leaders then place in the tribe's religious context, he said.

The use of exercise to feel a blurring of the border between the self and that which is beyond the self is common in Eastern practices such as yoga, said Kasulis, who studies the relationship between physical activity and meditation. Yogis would understand this feeling of unity as the true state of existence, and think of the separation of the self from the rest of the world as an illusion, he said.

Exercise as a spiritual discipline is less common in the West, which has lost much of the context for it, Sullivan and Kasulis believe. Mainstream Christianity considers the soul, the spiritual self, to be essentially distinct from the body, Kasulis said.

As a result, Americans are likely to understand their exercise-altered mental states as simply a good feeling, a pleasant escape from the troubles of ordinary life and the strain of exertion, Kasulis said.

But physical activity as a form of devotion continues in some Eastern Orthodox practices, such as repeated prostration, Bushell said.

And it can be inculcated in such common Western exercises as aerobics, by concentrating on breathing, Kasulis said.

He likened this to the breathing techniques of Eastern religion: "You are conscious of air filling you. Where does my breath begin and end? There is a continuity between the air inside you and outside you."

A focus on spirituality can then become a driving force that makes a person more healthy, said Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper, whose 1968 book, "Aerobics," helped to start the fitness movement. Cooper's latest book, "It's Better to Believe," says that an active life should be a natural outgrowth of faith.

Studies have found that very religious people have fewer health problems, said Cooper, a researcher who founded the Cooper Institute of Aerobics Research in Dallas.

And although this is likely due to fewer bad health habits such as smoking and drinking, part of it is likely to be due to stress control, and exercise is an excellent tool against stress, he said.

Religious beliefs can encourage a person to exercise, said Cooper, a Southern Baptist who believes people should exercise regularly partly because "our body is a temple."

Cooper hopes that people would in effect convert to physical activity, "if we could combine strong religious beliefs and use those to enhance fitness."

Although Cooper starts his day with 15 minutes of prayer and meditation, he said he sometimes also finds himself praying while exercising: "Lord, thank you for this day."

And if people would let exercise lead them to religion, they'd be better off, Cooper said.

"Physical fitness is all right, but spiritual fitness is what you need, because that prepares you for the next life."

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