Author Kaiser Johnson makes the case for physical fitness as a spiritual good

Many fitness enthusiasts have an unhealthy obsession with training and dieting—but this shouldn’t discourage Catholics from getting healthy through sports and fitness, says Kaiser Johnson, the author of a new book on the how to integrate body and soul with faith and fitness.

“If we approach fitness properly, we’ll gain great discipline and virtue, without falling into obsessiveness, vanity, or the like,” Johnson, extreme fitness enthusiast and actor, writes in the introduction of his book, Grit & Glory: Cross-Training Your Body and Soul.

He’s not the first person to say that physical exercise is good for the soul. Pope St. John Paul II was an avid sportsman, installing a swimming pool at his summer residence and jogging in the Vatican gardens.

The Polish pontiff once remarked that sport “trains body and spirit for perseverance, effort, courage, balance, sacrifice, honesty, friendship and collaboration.”

This message has a renewed importance today, says Kaiser, who says he’s found that some Catholics dismiss physical exercise and a healthy diet in order to avoid vanity. 

“We Catholics extol the importance of virtue, of fortitude, of detachment, of trust, of patience, of suffering … and yet, many of us think of fitness as vanity,” Johnson says. “When we do that, we miss the great opportunity God gives us to practice our values in our bodies on a daily basis.”

Johnson’s Instagram account is dotted with snaps of him taking on impressive obstacle course hurdles (think rope climbs, spear throws and fire jumps), interspersed with updates on his acting roles (he’s appeared in the television shows Vampire Diaries and Sleepy Hollow) and has more exciting acting projects and athletics competitions in the works. Those who follow his account for inspiration can also check out his stories for his latest workout challenges.

He tells Angelus News that he comes into contact with people who see the two worlds of faith and fitness as separate. “Catholics on one side were saying [to me], ‘You show so much discipline [in your fitness routines]. How do you do that?’ Athletic people on the other side were saying, ‘You show so much discipline in your spiritual life. Where does that come from?’”

But Johnson says that our bodies and souls are both integral parts of what it means to be human. “Our body and soul are one,” he says, adding, “If you are going to work so hard in one aspect of your life, why not all the way through?”

Johnson says that his long training sessions taught him about the need to accept suffering and commit to proper discipline. “Good things require us to endure suffering. There’s no romance in life, there’s no good in life that we don’t have to give something up for—that we don’t have to sacrifice for. All goods come through sacrifice.”

This lesson easily crossed over into his daily life as he deals with everyday inconveniences or personal hardships. He says it helps him to embrace the Cross. 

“God is actually sharing something very intimate about his life with me in suffering,” he says.

Training also taught him to always try to be better, which is the key message of the book. “My goal for the average reader picking up the book is that they develop a goal, and they develop a habit of making goals, and of achieving these goals and then making new goals,” he says.

“It’s so valuable to do that in our physical lives and in our spiritual lives—in everything to find a place to be growing and changing and learning and getting better every single day of their lives.”

The book explores exercise through the lens of faith, while giving an introduction into high intensity training, weightlifting and nutrition with the goal of getting stronger and losing weight. A few chapters are dedicated to creating good workout habits, tips for building community through exercise and tracking your athletic progress, which Johnson juxtaposes with the spiritual equivalents.

Of course, Johnson says that lacking muscle isn’t a sign of being less holy. Throughout the book, he frequently quotes G.K. Chesterton, an author who was known for his colossal weight and distaste for exercise. Johnson says this could have been due to many different factors, including a chronic health condition and misinformation about what constitutes a good diet, not necessary gluttony and sloth. 

“We don’t know what someone may be dealing with,” he says.

“Our culture is really obsessed with body image and really neglects the person as a whole,” he adds. “When we fall into that ourselves that is a huge tragedy, we are losing our true sense of value.” 

Finding self-worth should come from a person’s relationship with God, he says. “You are good because God made you good.”

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