An old Methodist church in my home city of Sunderland, in Northeast England, often displayed very thought-provoking messages which I looked for every time I passed by. One that I always remember is, "Is God your steering wheel or your spare wheel?"

This image can speak to many of us who desire a deeper spiritual life. Sometimes, we find ourselves seeking God more when things go wrong or become flat.

It can be the same with exercise: Physical fitness is something we want, but it can be difficult to be motivated to get going. It may not be until we receive bad news from, say, a medical appointment that we try to take up the fitness quest.

Yet, exercise is important for both our physical and spiritual health. St. Ignatius of Loyola was a master teacher in spirituality, developing his spiritual exercises as a way of helping people progress in their relationship with God. He knew that persistent and definitive effort would help a person move to a deeper sense of God, a stronger relationship with God and a lasting, healthy spiritual life.

He also knew that a structured routine of prayer would help keep even the most unmotivated or reluctant spiritual pilgrim on track. Ignatius appointed a spiritual director to walk with each seeker to keep him or her accountable and progressing.

The same is true in the world of physical fitness: A combination of a good diet and physical exercises can help someone make changes to their lifestyle and body in no time. Having a workout buddy or a personal trainer, or even the latest technology, can help a person to keep working toward their goals.

In modern society, spirituality, like fitness, attracts a constant stream of fads aimed at quick fixes. But, in both areas, it is often those who make slow, steady and committed progress who, over time, get the most lasting and life-changing results.

In the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, there is an emphasis on progression: a deeper movement inward into the mystery of a God who loves and desires us unconditionally. Ignatius also believed in the gentle approach, especially for beginners, so he doesn't have us launching into running a spiritual marathon, but gradually uses the spiritual exercises to build our intimacy with the One who planted the desire for it in us.

As Venerable Catherine Mc-Auley, foundress of the Sisters of Mercy, said: "We get on by taking short, careful steps, not big strides." In both physical and spiritual exercise, we must learn to walk before we can run.

We all desire health in mind, body and spirit, and so spiritual and physical health are part of the same goal of personal wholeness - or, in spiritual language, holiness. Prayer and physical exercise could become part of a healthy lifestyle, rather than just the "spare wheel" we put on when we need help.

Maybe, over the summer, as the weather becomes warmer and more inviting, we can make an effort to go for a walk with God and improve both our physical and spiritual health.

(Sister Victoria is a Sister of Mercy from the United Kingdom who is currently teaching religious studies, sociology and bereavement studies at Maria College in Albany.)