Healthy, Not Unholy: Part 1

1 Corinthians 9:24

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.

I have a confession to make:

I’m into physical fitness.

That’s right. I exercise regularly. I do it for many different reasons.

I use the word “confession” to make a point: some Christians may believe the pursuit of physical fitness, health and attractiveness are not worthy goals for Christians to pursue. While I disagree with that position, I admit their concerns can be legitimate in some cases. In a series of three posts I would like to explore:

Part 1) the benefits and importance of physical fitness

Part 2) the potential downside to pursuing fitness

Part 3) the reasons we NEED to put effort into our physical well-being in order to be more pleasing to God.

Let’s look at the positive impact exercise and fitness can bring to our physical bodies as well as to our spiritual lives. Paul’s choice of a sports metaphor in the quote from 1 Corinthians 9 was not accidental.

Exercise is Beneficial to Physical Health

Exercise has measurable physiological benefits. It gets our heart pumping, loosens our joints, stretches our tendons, and works our muscles. Physical activity also helps control and maintain proper weight and increases our energy levels. It keeps our physical bodies in good working condition and helps to avoid the inevitable problems which can occur with age and lack of use. People who exercise on a regular basis generally show better health outcomes than those who do not. Regular physical activity can help prevent or manage a wide range of health problems and concerns including stroke, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancer and arthritis.

Exercise is Beneficial to Emotional Health

Physical activity can be exhilarating, especially if it involves an enjoyable activity that doesn’t seem like exercise. If you have ever watched kids chase each other around a playground until they’re so out of breath they can barely stand, you will understand what I mean. They are getting healthy, intensive exercise, but they are also having so much fun they don’t even notice. There’s no reason adults cannot relearn that special, child-like balance between physical health and fun in any number of enjoyable activities.

In addition to the fun and enjoyment we can derive from exercise, it has other measurable benefits a well. Physical activity can relieve stress and anxiety, improve overall mood and increase feelings of well-being. Many people who are depressed have low levels of serotonin. Even brief periods of intense training or moderate aerobic workouts can raise the levels of serotonin in the body which can help alleviate even clinical depression. Other chemicals released during exercise, such as endorphins, adrenaline, and dopamine, produce the feelings of pleasure many people feel after working out.

Studies have also shown that moderate exercise may improve quality of sleep and reduce sleep disturbances. Activities that focus on breathing, relaxation and meditation such as Yoga may be especially helpful for combating stress, anxiety, and sleeplessness.

Exercise Teaches Discipline

Hebrews 12:11-13

No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees.

Will power is the strength of will to carry out one’s decisions, wishes, or plans. It is the ability to control oneself and determine one’s actions. Self-discipline is the training expected to produce a specific character or pattern of behavior. It is controlled behavior resulting from disciplinary training and self-control.

Whenever we create goals for ourselves we recognize there are steps we must take to achieve those goals. Being able to put those steps in place and follow them to the fulfillment of the goal requires will power and self-discipline. When it comes to our physical health there are many different potential goals. We may determine we want to lose weight, get stronger, look and feel better, run a 5K, etc… In order to achieve our physical fitness goals we must put in place a workout schedule and make it a priority in our lives. There is no way to reach a fitness goal without training and prioritizing which means we often must forego other things that do not help us get where we want to go. Achieving our fitness goals helps reinforce the benefits of will power and self-discipline which, in turn, leads to increased inner power and persistence in other aspects of our lives. (more on that in Part Three)

Exercise Gives Us Confidence

Finally, exercise and the pursuit of physical health can give us confidence. When we put effort into our physical health we become physically stronger and more resilient. We gain increased sense of mastery, control, and self-sufficiency. Physical activity can also make us look better, both to ourselves and to the outside world. This IS important. When we feel good about ourselves, our inner confidence can project outward in a positive way to the people with whom we interact on a daily basis. Conversely, if we feel bad about our physical body, that negativity can project outwards with predictably bad results.

Let me be clear: I am NOT saying one’s sense of inner confidence and self-worth should be based on either wholly or even primarily on one’s physical fitness. In my opinion, that would represent a very shallow and ultimately self-destructive viewpoint. The Bible tells us in no uncertain terms how God views such an attitude:

1 Samuel 16:7

But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.

So if we acknowledge that a fixation on appearance is not desirable, but that exercise is good for us, then what could be problematic about physical fitness from a Christian perspective?

More on that next week in Part Two of “Healthy, Not Unholy”. See you then!

What do you think? Have you heard criticism from some who believe a focus on physical fitness is somehow in opposition to your faith? What do you say to them?

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12 thoughts on “Healthy, Not Unholy: Part 1

  1. There seems to be a perpetual tendency to consider and view the flesh as dirty and be hidden and avoided, and therefore it is neglected by too many, as we see from today’s obesity epidemic. One need nourish the physical body as it needs to be cared for and respected, for it is a gift. Those who seek to enhance its abilities and go beyond most (serious and professional cyclists speak of “the suffering” when turning themselves inside out when pushing it beyond one’s limits) I believe can strengthen one’s spirituality and practice of the faith. For my part, I’ve always considered a solo century ride to be more of a 5 to 6 hour stay at church, and a most grueling confessional if one bonks !

    • Thank you for the thoughtful post, Julio. It sounds like you know something about endurance sports! And you are right, our body is a gift from God and we should treat it accordingly.

  2. Thankyou for your refreshing Christian approach to paleo. I am a firm believer in the healthier I am, the more useful I am in God’s service. Exercise does profit a little, as Paul wrote to Timothy – its just keeping the balance and remembering godliness is greater!

    • Yes, balance is key. Ultimately the goal is to be pleasing to God and do His will. Taking care of ourselves can help us do just that. The trick is keeping it in perspective.

  3. This morning at church, our pastor was discussing Psalm 119: 161-168. When the service was closing, he put 1 Corinthians 9:24 on the screen. The prize, he said, is that we have a place in heaven! What a gift!

    I know this is not what you are talking about (in relation to this verse) in this post, but I had to share this “coincidence”. At our service today, he was talking about our perspective on life and our emotional relationship with Christ. Now that fits what you are talking about. Sometimes I do find that I am hitting the exercise a little harder so I can look better for the wrong reasons. I love it when the Lord speaks to me. Thank you for being that voice for Him!

  4. Yes, the ultimate prize is eternal life with God. For me, keeping it all in perspective is key. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to maintain good health and attractiveness. But it should never get in the way of our focus on God – just help us to achieve our ultimate goal of pleasing Him and furthering his will. I’m glad you found value in this post. I appreciate your comments. :-)

  5. Thanks for another great post. I have been “paleo” since July 2011 and was struggling with the whole “evolution” basis for it but your posts on Christianity and paleo have really helped. I’ve shared them with other Christian friends who I’m slowly “converting” to paleo/primal too. Keep up the great work and I look forward to reading more posts. Blessings.

  6. Pingback: Healthy, Not Unholy - Part Two

  7. Pingback: A "Paleo Spirit": My Personal Health Journey

  8. As the verse from 1 Samuel says, the heart is the key issue. We can do things that seem unimportant with a pure heart and please God, and we can do things that seem important with a bad heart and displease God. God repeatedly admonished the Israelites for their empty faith to the point that even their prayers were detestable to Him. So it is very much possible to use exercise in a way that is godly. Think about David. Had he not “wasted” so much time practicing with his sling, the story of him and Goliath would be much different. Not all things that are not necessarily spiritual disciplines should be considered improper pursuits.
    Now, if you’re spending time exercising each day but have no time to spend with God, then you most likely need to check your priorities. I love that before I work out, I can pray and thank God for the physical health and abilities he has given me, and that it reminds me to pray for those who don’t have the same abilities and health that I do. I can recite verses as I do planks, or just meditate and pray while I walk or hike. And as was mentioned before, good physical health will help us to be better servants who can use physical health for the benefits of others. Our bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit, and it would be a good idea to honor that wonderful gift. Nice article :)

    • Ryan,
      I appreciate your comment immensely! Thank you for pointing out how activities that are not directly “spiritual disciplines” can still be valid and prepare us for service to God. I recently gave a presentation to some women where I spoke about the need to take care of our bodies – why it is a GOOD thing and should not be considered selfish. (The caveat being, as you point out, that it does not interfere with our devotion to God.) I really appreciate your point about David practicing with his sling and how God used that. IMHO I believe not taking care of our bodies is disrespectful to what God has given us. But it all must be kept in proper perspective.
      Thanks again, Lea

  9. I just recently found your website and it’s so refreshing! I had viewed a few other of your posts and found it so useful and not full of the “hard” profanity-laced content that some of the other blogs in the paleo community seem to be so prone to. It’s been enough to even make me think, “hmmm, do I want to be a part of this community?” As a Christian, I have found myself feeling embarrassed when talking about fitness with other Christians and have often worried if my priorities are misplaced (though we are definitely capable of turning anything into sinful obsession). It’s helpful to be reminded that we can serve
    God by taking care of our bodies. There’s a quote in the movie CHARRIOTS OF FIRE that I love and think of often when pondering this question of Christianity and exercise. A runner is defending his competing in a race to other Christians who say he is sinning by competing. He says, “God made me fast. When I run, I feel his pleasure.” All good things come from He who made us. I often, after a workout wil pray, “thank you God for this body that works and is strong. Give me opportunity to use it for your glory.” Thank you for your excellent blog! God bless!

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