Exercise Ministry Keeps
This Sister Running on Faith

- by Lori Golaszewski

She's an avid runner, a diehard Yankees fan, and has a passion for all things athletic. It's no surprise, then, that Mariane Fahlman, OP, turned her love of sports into a full-time ministry.

Sister Mariane uses her ministry to prepare university students for careers as health teachers.

For 16 years, Sister Mariane held court in a gymnasium, teaching physical education to elementary, junior high and high school students. She felt a calling to minister at the university level, however, and after receiving a doctorate in health education and exercise physiology, began teaching at Wayne State University in Detroit. Now the lesson plans she once created for her own students are being shared with the budding teachers under her tutelage.

"My undergraduate students are going to be health and phys ed teachers in the K-12 system," Sister Mariane explained. "I work with two other faculty members who teach all the content. By the time I get the students, I teach them how to turn that content into a lesson for a seventh through twelfth grader. I put the students in a classroom and watch them teach. They're fun to watch, because they really have a passion and want to do a good job."

Sister Mariane also teaches graduate students who are health professionals working at hospitals, the public health department and in other areas of the community. "It's strictly lecture and content, whereas with the undergrads, I get to play," she laughed.

Sister Mariane's fun and effective teaching methods have not gone unnoticed by the Michigan Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. The group named her the University Educator of the Year at its annual meeting in November.

Teaching, however, is only one aspect of Sister Mariane's ministry. She also does research on the effects of exercise on the immune system, particularly
with the elderly.

Sister Mariane's ministry at Wayne State University is split between teaching and research. She studies the effects of exercise on the immune system and has published numerous papers on her findings.

"One of the things I've gotten involved in is how exercise affects the immune system," Sister Mariane explained. "If you exercise at a moderate level, you generally have a better immune system than everybody else. But if you exercise too much, it hurts your immune system."

"A lot of my research has been focusing on how much exercise we can make the elderly do before their immune system becomes compromised in a manner similar to that of a younger athlete. I work with a team of five other people who look at the effects of exercise on the elderly - how does it impact their ability to walk, to resist falls, to carry out activities of daily living, and how does exercise impact the last 20 years of their life."

Sister Mariane performed two earlier studies with elderly subjects. In one study, the IHM Sisters in Monroe walked 50 minutes a day, three times a week, and in the other study, a group of elderly women in Toledo, Ohio, did weight training three times a week. In both studies, the results were the same: the participants' cardiovascular systems and their musculature got stronger and they had no decreases in their immune systems. "We didn't hurt their immune systems by adding exercise to their daily regimen," Sister Mariane explained.

She is now turning her attention to the effects of water exercise on the elderly. "This is a population prone to arthritis, so if you tell them to walk for 50 minutes, unless they're really healthy, they're not going to be able to do that. But if you put the elderly in water and take the weight off their joints, you can decrease their pain and they can do more."

Seeing improvements in the health of the elderly she works with is what Sister Mariane likes best about her research. "These are people who are using walkers and canes, and after working with them for 16 to 20 weeks, they can move again. They're so happy that they can do all the things that used to be a burden for them. That's all the motivation I need to continue."

What also motivates Sister Mariane and keeps her fit and healthy is her love for running and walking. She and Peg O'Flynn, OP — who for decades had been running partners until Sister Peg broke her kneecap — took part in the Detroit Free Press/Flagstar Bank Marathon on October 23. The pair walked the half marathon for a total of 13.1 miles. They hope to enlist three other Adrian Dominicans to participate as a relay team in next year's marathon.

Regardless of whether she's pounding the pavement or guiding the next generation of health teachers, Sister Mariane finds that she's always running on faith.