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Fitness instructors find that exercise benefits both the body and the soul

Currently expecting her first daughter, boxing trainer Elizabeth McLenon keeps up with her six sons by being a spiritual warrior, turning her tough workouts at EverFit Gym into sacrificial prayers. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JILL RAGAR ESFELD

by Jill Ragar Esfeld

OVERLAND PARK — If Holy Spirit parishioner Elizabeth McLenon can find time for exercise, anyone can.

She’s a mother of six boys from 3 to 15 years old, and she’s expecting her first girl in January.

No excuses.

In addition to meeting the demands of her growing family, McLenon keeps in shape teaching boxing at EverFit in Shawnee and Brookridge Golf and Fitness in Overland Park.

“I think seeing a mom who can hold her own is a great example for my boys,” she said. “And it’s kind of fun to tell people I’m a boxer.”

Brookridge Fitness director Lynn Eskina, a member of Good Shepherd Parish in Shawnee, is another example of fortitude in fitness.

In addition to her full-time job at Brookridge, Eskina has three children, and also teaches a variety of classes at EverFit.

“Everybody needs to be active,” she said. “It makes you feel so much better.”

McLenon’s neighbor and fellow parishioner Annie Tinker is on the same track.

A former theology teacher at Bishop Miege High School in Roeland Park, Tinker recently had her first child and decided to stay home.

She used the time to become certified in Pietra Fitness, a stretching and strengthening program that incorporates Catholic prayer.

“When I work out,” said Tinker, “I sleep better, I’m a better spouse and I’m a better mom.”

All these trainers are in excellent shape, but see their physical appearance as only a side benefit to their efforts.

“I want to be the healthiest version of myself for myself,” said Eskina. “I don’t work out because my husband thinks I look better — he’ll love me no matter what.

“I thank God every day that I have my health.”

Spiritual warriors

Fitness and faith may seem odd partners but, for these active women, both are essential to keeping them grounded.

“When you’re busy,” said McLenon, “usually the first things to go are prayer and exercise, so it’s nice to incorporate them both.”

To that end, McLenon has designed a boxing class called the Spiritual Warrior Workout.

“We use the workout, the hitting and kicking, to imagine a spiritual foe we’re fighting against,” she said.

That spiritual foe may be a temptation, an illness or even a world issue.

“I think God has given us so many avenues to help him sanctify the body of Christ,” she explained. “And I feel powerfully that this is one way he is asking us to use redemptive suffering.”

A challenging workout can be a continuing prayer.

“When prayer is combined with the physicality of working out,” McLenon said, “you have that reminder through sore muscles and fatigue that you have prayed for a specific intention.

“It can help keep the prayer intention in the forefront of your mind.”

That’s why Tinker likes Pietra Fitness, which incorporates prayer into core-strengthening exercises.

“I think the workout really complements my prayer life,” she said. “Everybody is looking for peace and, as Catholics, we believe we can only find true peace through Jesus Christ.”

Tinker is grateful to her pastor Father Ric Halvorson for allowing her to offer classes at Holy Spirit Church.

Sanity, not vanity

Though she doesn’t overtly incorporate prayer into her classes, Eskina sees the spiritual side of exercise as “God’s natural therapy for anxiety and depression.”

Science has shown that exercise triggers the release of endorphins that minimize the negative impact of stress and pain on the mind and body,

“Once you step foot in the gym,” said Eskina, “you’re not even thinking about what you’re stressed out about.

“You’re thinking about what you’re doing in the class.”

Her knowledge comes from experience. Six years ago, when Eskina’s husband was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, his continued workouts were part of his healing process.

“I think working out helped him get through it,” she said. “He did radiation every day for a month.

“He’d go to the gym, go to his radiation and go to work.”

The experience gave her a perspective on fitness and faith.

“I think you need both,” she said. “Physical fitness is a stress reliever. Then going to church is a ‘thank you for giving me this opportunity to live my life.’”

Community is another link Eskina sees between her faith and exercise. Both require a community to inspire and encourage their practice.

An avid athlete through college, she kept active by running once she graduated, but missed the camaraderie of being part of a team.

“Then a friend talked me into joining a gym,” she said. “And I just loved it.”

Eventually, Eskina became certified to teach group classes, which she’s been doing for 18 years.

“They say you should love your job and I really do,” she said. “I’m thankful I am able to do it.”

McLenon is another advocate of exercising in community. She joined a gym after she had her third child.

“And I loved it so much,” she said. “After a couple of years, I decided to teach so I could share that joy of fitness with other people.”

Community means commitment

Small fitness studios, like EverFit where Eskina and McLenon teach, are growing in popularity because people like the friendship and sense of commitment that comes with the limited class size and structured workout.

“I love the group atmosphere,” said Eskina. “I love getting to know the people in my class.

“And there’s accountability because we all say, ‘Hey, why weren’t you there yesterday? We missed you.’”

Tinker has a similar experience teaching Pietra Fitness at Holy Spirit.

“It is a community experience,” she said.

Health benefits are the desired outcome for any fitness routine and the key to getting them, say these experts, is cross-training.

“I try to formulate my classes to include cardio and weights, always,” said Eskina. “You have to have the weights for bone density. They go hand in hand.”

But starting any fitness routine is challenging and, though prayer helps, these trainers have a few other tips to keep you motivated.

Tinker suggests starting out with a class that fits your level so you don’t get discouraged.

“Pietra Fitness has three different levels,” she said. “The class I teach is the level two, but I make modifications.”

Eskina also suggests modifying any weight or movement to fit your ability while still challenging yourself.

“I always suggest modifications,” she said. “Mostly, I just want everyone to have fun — everyone doing the same thing to the best of their ability.

“Fitness should be fun. It shouldn’t be a chore.”

Eskina also breaks her workouts into short time segments, telling her students it’s their moment to perform to their personal best.

“I’ve learned it’s better to do it for time,” she said. “And everybody does what they can do in that minute — or 30 seconds — and then we move on.”

The key is reaching your personal goal using whatever ability God has given you.

“I think we can give glory to God no matter what shape we’re in,” said McLenon. “We give him glory by doing our best to take care of ourselves.”

About the author

Jill Esfeld

Jill Ragar Esfeld received a degree in Writing from Missouri State University and started her profession as a magazine feature writer, but quickly transitioned to technical/instructional writing where she had a successful career spanning more than 20 years. She returned to feature writing when she began freelancing for The Leaven in 2004. Her articles have won several awards from the Catholic Press Association. Jill grew up in Christ the King parish in Kansas City, Missouri; and has been a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa, Kansas, for 35 years.

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