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Holy Health! Meet spiritual leaders who practice both faith and fitness

by Jordi Lippe-McGraw / / Source: TODAY

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Many of us turn to religious leaders for everything from spiritual guidance to life advice. But using them for workout and diet tips? Not so much.

Yet, as obesity rates rise worldwide, more and more faith leaders are turning to a healthier lifestyle and encouraging their followers to do the same.

While a strong spiritual foundation and prayer or meditation can have positive effects on the mind, everyone from the pope to the Dalai Lama has incorporated physical activity and healthy eating into their daily routine.

Of course, it’s not always their idea. Earlier this year, the Italian news agency ANSA reported that doctors recommended Pope Francis cut back on the pasta and increase his walking to lose some of the weight he’d put on since moving into the Vatican. (Prior to taking the top spot in the Catholic Church, it’s been reported, the Pope enjoyed lighter meals of fruit, skinless chicken and salads.)

Anticipation (and security concerns) growing for Pope Francis’ visit
Amidst his hectic travel schedule and frequent public engagements, the pope has reportedly been advised to take more time for walks and exercise.TODAY

In 2011, evangelical pastor Rick Warren helped his congregation at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, to collectively lose about 250,000 pounds with a weight loss program after being inspired by his own 60-pound weight loss. The usual message of avoiding temptation now carried over into dietary choices like avoiding sweets and second helpings. Their commitment inspired other churches to join in the weight loss program.

Pastor Joel Osteen has been spotted on the beach showing off his six-pack abs and often posts diet and fitness advice on his website encouraging people to "take care of your temple."

The buff Protestant leader tells his followers to limit sugar and caffeine and consume more water, fruits, vegetables and organic foods. He even appointed Health Fitness Revolution founder Samir Becic to lead the health and fitness program at his Texas church.

Aside from tweaking their eating habits, many spiritual leaders are partaking in some serious physical activity. Sister Madonna Buder is nicknamed "The Mother Superior of Triathlon" and "The Iron Nun" for completing more than 366 triathlons, 46 of which were Ironman distances.

"Talking to me about running, she explained that 'not only [has it] helped me solve my problems, it reduced my anxiety and cleared my soul, taking away any brooding darkness that took away my positive attitude,'" Jo Piazza, author of "If Nuns Ruled the World" tells TODAY.com.

“From her first run on the beach in borrowed sneakers and shorts, she began doing triathlons and then a marathon. She was encouraged by a friend to try an Ironman and she hasn't stopped since then,” says Piazza.

At 84, Madonna, a member of a non-denominational community of nuns, still maintains this active life, but she's hardly the only Sister to do so.

"Nuns are an incredibly healthy lot," she says. "Many of them run and practice yoga. Most of them have a regular exercise routine. They also meditate and eat healthfully. They take incredibly good care of themselves. Some of them have even tried Weight Watchers. Nuns always seek to be positive role models for the younger generation and they lead their lives hoping to set a positive example. Their health and fitness routine is just another way of doing that."

Daniel Kanter loves cycling adventures.
Daniel Kanter loves cycling adventures.Courtesy Daniel Kanter

Reverend Dr. Daniel Kanter of First Unitarian Church in Dallas spends hours on his bike and even completed an eight-day, 850-mile cross-country ride this past spring.

“For me, health and fitness are symbols of the spirit within,” Kanter tells TODAY.com. “As a spiritual leader in my community, my job is to model a certain level of centeredness and clarity. I think both my daily routine and my cycling adventures model for my church and the community that spiritual life isn’t just an intellectual pursuit nor is it just something you do on Sunday morning."

Rabbi Moshe Gray, the director of a Jewish center at Dartmouth College, is known as the "CrossFit Rabbi." He works out five days a week.

"I do CrossFit because it's hard. How can you do God's work by neglecting the body that was given to you?" Gray said.

"God created us in physical bodies and these bodies are ours to take care of and use. They're given to us in trust to use as long as we're here. To enhance one's body so you can do your mission on this planet better and have more energy for longer — it's indistinguishable from any meditating, praying, studying from a rabbi or religious person."

After experiencing the results firsthand, Gray launched a CrossFit program for other rabbis and their wives. A year later, the 30 members reportedly lost a combined 667 pounds. These days you can follow Gray's workout routines and community service on his Instagram page with his nickname moniker.

Even the Dalai Lama, the most serene of all spiritual leaders, incorporates exercise into his day. According to his website, His Holiness takes a 30-minute walk every day at 5 a.m. around the residential premises or on a treadmill if it's raining.

The Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama stays fits for his very active schedule by walking outside or on a treadmill.Gareth Cattermole / Getty Images file

"With his prostrations done, he walked to a treadmill tucked away by the window," wrote Victor Chan of his day spent with Buddhist leader. "He hung his prayer beads on the handle bar next to a draped towel and began to pace rapidly on the moving belt. Almost immediately he closed his eyes as he surrendered to the machine's rhythm, and meditated as he exercised. It was a much faster version of walking meditation."

Regardless of the affiliation, what's clear is that leaders from all religions are realizing not only the importance of their own physical health, but that of their congregations and followers as well. The efforts led by these men and women of faith have helped others find their best spiritual and physical selves — and that's nothing short of miraculous.

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