Health

Why Do I Feel Guilty When I Exercise?: Learning to Run on High

February 2, 2012

I was 100 pounds overweight when I decided it was time to get in shape. I took up running, and my efforts were met with success. Friends and family were complimenting me and, for the first time in years, I could walk up a hill without getting winded.

So why was I feeling so guilty?

I accepted the dichotomy without ever critically thinking about it. Whether it was the mind-versus-body split of philosophy, or kabbalah’s claim of the soul’s struggle against the body, the physical was always pitted against the spiritual.

So when I began to vigorously engage in what seemed like a strictly physical pursuit, I felt guilty. I was uncomfortable with activities like sports and exercise. Running, with all the health benefits it had to offer, left me uneasy.

I tried to ignore the little voice in my head that told me that running was bitul zman, a waste of time. When that didn’t work, I tried to convince myself that my time in the gym was justified by the fact that it would allow me to live longer and fulfill the goal of v’nishmartem meod, protecting my life. I suppose that should have been enough, but somehow it left me less than satisfied. Not enough to get me to stop, but, still, I was determined to understand and hopefully get rid of the gnawing feeling I was experiencing.

I then discovered a benefit to my running that I hadn’t expected. As I ran, my mind worked better. Not just my mind, but my soul as well. As I sweated off the pounds, I found myself thinking with a level of clarity I hadn’t felt in a long time. As I got faster and set new running goals, I started aiming higher in my spiritual life as well.

I began to realize that there is no split, that I am not made up of competing parts pulling me in different directions. There is a wholeness that I feel as I no longer see myself in conflict. I am not made up of competing interests. In everything I do, there is only me.

As I pray, my body gently sways; as I hear music, my soul dances; and as I run, I become myself in a way I never could before. I see G-d in places that I had previously (paradoxically?) thought of as inherently unholy.

As for the guilt, along with all my excess weight, it is long gone.

Pesach Sommer is married and has seven children. He is a rebbe at The Yeshiva of Flatbush. He enjoys reading, writing and running. Pesach plans to run the Boston Marathon this April.