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Lent, Sacrifice and Fitness

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Forgive me, Lord, in advance for what I'm about to do.

This week is Holy Week, and for those of you not in the know about Jesus and his crazy life, this week marks the end of Lent, the craziest of the last 40 days of Jesus' crazy journey on this planet.

Lent is the time period of precontemplative willingness to endure some form of suffering in symbolic recognition of "the man's walk to glory," ending on Easter Sunday.

And as is my tendency to connect one far-flung universal topic to the ever-present topic of fitness, I awoke last night correlating the end of Lent as the perfect time to make that fitness change, for Christians and non-Christians alike.

Almost 40 days ago when it began, few people jumped on the Lenten wagon.

I challenge you all to use this final phase of Lent to consider giving up one of your addictions, even if it's just for a few days. Four is the magic number for success with any new fitness regime. Day four is breakthrough day.

Much of what we do on a daily basis is guided by our unconscious habits. In a new book called The Power of Habit by Charles Durhigg, research is cited that calculates that more than 40 percent of the actions we take are governed by habit, not actual decisions.

Habits are so encrypted in our brains that it often takes more than willpower to change them. This is a belief that the members of Alcoholics Anonymous understand and it is a lesson we can use to change our routines. If we want to break a habit or give up an addiction it helps to commit to some bigger global belief -- something bigger than our own automatic responses. What does that mean? I think it means Higher Power.

And if Lent is about one thing, it is about Higher Power.

Lack of fitness can lead to many adverse symptoms -- including death, the final symptom. The time period of Lent is a culturally accepted way of stopping the saboteurs in your life -- the ones that leave homemade cookies in the lunchroom and make your favorite fettuccine Alfredo even though they know that you are in phase one of the Zone Diet, of which fettuccine of any kind is not a part.

The simple phrase, "I'm giving it up for Lent" stops the saboteurs short. So not only does sacrafice for a bigger reason let you off the hook with your food-pusher friends, it also gives you a bigger reason, and a bigger strength to push food away yourself.

If Father Guido Sarducci from Saturday Night Live can give up his mentholated cigarettes for Lent, then certainly we can get down to this business of abstention and sacrifice in the name of God, and if not in the name of God then at least in the name of fitness, and if not for 40 days then at least for four days -- not that they are the same motivation, but the giving up part will still help you reap the similar benefits.

If you need yet more motivation to head into four days and nights of some form of deprivation, consider that the idea that restraint reaches into many other religious practices, yoga being the first to come to my mind.

The second of the eight limbs of the Ashtanga yoga path to enlightenment is the "yamas," which are ethical precepts that are supposed to make us better people. The yamas are called "restraints" because they are things you withhold or give up, "ahimsa" being the first and most famous yama, which means non-violence, which is where the idea of vegetarianism comes from. There's also truth-telling, meaning don't lie, and there's non-stealing and non-greediness, and the no sex yama, which is a bit trickier.

If any of these are hard for you, then giving that up is a good place to start. Why? Self-awareness for starters. Giving up alcohol or coffee or swearing or procrastination (nah, let's do this one later) or TV or junk food or texting while driving or Facebook can all be eye-opening experiences. Becoming aware of our addictions is a walk into the deeper parts of our consciousness, and it has the capability to wake us up.

Renunciation is a tool to face that to which we are enslaved. It is not for the weak. It demands strength and discipline. But humans survived the ice age. Building up your ability to resist even a minor addiction will make you a survivor.

Consider enduring a time period of restraint in one small corner of your daily life. It can weaken self-absorption and self-deception, self-indulgence and over-indulgence. This builds fortitude.

The lesson of Lent for people who don't officially observe Lent is to be willing to change, to be happy in spite of what we do not have, to become aware of our attachments, to be less of a slave to our mind and to learn patience and develop endurance.

Maybe there is some scientific basis for the healing power of restraint. All I know is that as far as fitness is concerned, restraint keeps us from giving up and helps us to continue to try to be better and to live better, and then even if we aren't actually better, we can hopefully be happy with what we've been given.

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