Poor Clare Sister Mary Fidelis and hundreds of others supported the third annual Nun Run in Tempe in March. Catholics have a moral obligation to care for their health, says a Jesuit priest. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Jesuit Father Peter Clark, a bioethics professor at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, believes Catholics have a moral obligation to care for their health.

“Catholics have a right to health care, and therefore (we) have a corresponding duty to take care of our health,” he said in a telephone interview with Catholic News Service.

At a time when the rate of obesity among Americans is on the rise, he added that “obesity is both a sanctity-of-life issue and a question of justice.”

A recent Gallup study found that Americans are more likely to be at an unhealthy weight than at a normal weight, and that 26 percent of Americans are considered obese.

The trend is affecting not only health care costs, but personal well-being. Though there is no simple solution, many, like Father Clark, offer a spiritual approach.

Tom Hafer, who is a minister with Volunteers for America, a physical therapist and the author of “Faith and Fitness,” uses ecumenical teachings to incorporate spirituality into a wellness lifestyle. To him, prayer is as vital as exercise and proper food when losing weight.

“Prayer, or a deeper understanding of our connection to our Creator is necessary,” Hafer told CNS. “Because everything we need for sustaining health and wellness has come from our Creator. The act of exercise itself can be the conduit to a deeper prayer life.”

Exercise can be a meditative experience, according to Hafer. He suggested reading a psalm or praying before going for a run, saying the exercise and prayer will complement each other.

Because life and well-being are God’s gift, “exercise really is an expression of gratitude and thanksgiving,” he said. Hafer described his job as a lifestyle, not a program, because his work is not necessarily about weight loss, but about “returning to a full life.”

One popular Catholic program, Light Weigh created by Suzanne Fowler, has seen success by asking participants to monitor their food portions. The method comes from the Catholic tradition of fasting, one that encourages religious discipline and makes weight loss the byproduct. Other traditions, such as abstaining from meat on Fridays, also have a positive impact on diet.

Some Catholic parishes around the country are using their own programs to improve the well-being of their parishioners.

St. Brigid Parish in Johnston, R.I., started a Health and Wellness Team Ministry to aid in weight loss. The program created by Father Robert A. Rochon, the pastor, is modeled after the successful parish nursing concept, developed in the 1980s by the Rev. Granger E. Westberg, an Illinois Lutheran minister who founded the program to provide physical, emotional and spiritual care of church members.

Like Hafer’s ministry and Light Weigh, St. Brigid’s Health and Wellness Team takes a holistic approach with the understanding that obesity is not simply a physical problem.

The Diocese of Davenport, Iowa, runs its own “Walking With Jesus” program. Considered a fitness challenge, the goal is to reach a certain number of steps over the course of the summer. Activities such as biking, swimming and running also are included. Participants are expected to monitor their diet both by diversifying it with fruits and vegetables and cutting back on portions.

Its creators say the program is easy to implement even in small parishes. At the end of the summer, prizes are awarded to the participants who logged the most steps.

In the Detroit area, St. Malachy and St. Anastasia parishes have a successful program.

Dianne Florka, a St. Malachy parishioner, adapted a weight-loss program her family used for the parish. She told CNS, “This is a 12-week challenge that begins with nutrition and culminates in exercise and meditation. … The goal is not to lose weight at the end of 12 weeks, but to create an entire lifestyle change.”

“Exercise and meditation always help with the weight loss,” said Florka. “If you have a good relationship in your spiritual life, you are going to want to have a good relationship with the rest of yourself. You cannot say one part of you is healthy and two parts of you are not.”

Both Florka and Hafer acknowledged a spiritual kinship with Eastern and other religions.

“When I was in seminary,” Hafer said, “one of the greatest gifts I had was praying with Muslims and Buddhists and Hare Krishnas and seeing how they go about their way of worship, and I discovered very quickly how ingrained the spiritual and physical is for them.”

“I was in a very rewarding Christian yoga program,” Florka told CNS. “It kept the physical aspects of yoga, but focused the meditations on Christian imagery.”

Hafer sees prayer as much a part of living a full life as diet and exercise.

“I hope Insanity and P90X and other exercise programs have great success,” he said, “but my message is not that you lose 10 pounds but that you understand the deeper gift in exercise and in healthy, whole, real foods. Because you must trust the Creator in what he gave us.

“Exercise is by far the fountain of youth, the magic pill for weight loss, and the antidepressant. We just have to use it.”

By Daniel Linskey Catholic News Service