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

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Paleo Spirit Fitness: MOVE

After having a fitness epiphany a few months ago I determined to create for myself a manageable workout plan. As I mentioned in a previous post, taking a cue from Mark Sisson’s “The Primal Blueprint”, there are four workout categories I try to incorporate into my life every week:

  • MOVE
  • LIFT
  • SPRINT
  • PLAY

It sounds obvious that moving your body is a good thing. But many people are under the impression that gaining any real benefit from exercise means engaging in intense “cardio”. In a previous post I wrote about what I have learned about “Chronic Cardio”. Let’s look a little more closely at what I have learned about MOVING, why it is so important and how NOT to do it.

My father, who was a medical doctor, used to say walking causes you to, “leave fat in your footsteps”. I think of that quote when I am out walking or hiking but it would count for yoga or other similar low-key aerobic activities as well. The recommended heart rate range to quality as “low-level” is approximately 55-75% of maximum. This type of MOVING is important for good overall cardiovascular and immune system health and can benefit almost anyone at any age. Another important benefit of moving frequently at a slow pace is the base of strength it gives you. Once you start moving on a regular basis it will not be long before you are able to handle more intense workouts if you desire.

The benefits of low-key aerobic activity:

  • Helps balance blood sugar levels
  • Regulates appetite
  • Trains your body to metabolize fat more efficiently
  • Increases your capillary network
  • Grows muscle mitochondria
  • Strengthens the stroke volume of your heart
  • Improves oxygen delivery of the lungs
  • Strengthens bones, joints and connective tissue
  • Improves ability to recover from more intense workouts
  • Stimulates beneficial hormone flow
  • Builds a more efficient circulatory system
  • Increases energy levels

It is actually very easy to achieve 55-75% of maximum heart rate and highly dependent upon your current fitness level. A very fit individual might need to jog to get into this “zone” while another person might only need to take a slow walk around the neighborhood. There are some online calculators that take into account your age and spit out the heart rate for a given percentage of maximum. But another guide is to remember you should break a light sweat but still be able to carry on a conversation. When I was trying to figure out my 55-75% of maximum I went to my gym and used some cardio machines that have a heart rate monitor. I tried a few different ones to make sure I was getting a reasonably accurate reading. You can also buy an inexpensive monitor to make sure you do not exceed 75% on the days when you are MOVING. Another general guide is:

  • 220 – age = estimated maximum heart rate (MEN)
  • 226 – age = estimated maximum heart rate (WOMEN)

When you MOVE in this range your body shifts into the fat burning zone. When you start exercising at levels above 85% of maximum for extended periods of time your body burns glucose for fuel. This causes lactate to accumulate in the bloodstream and your body produces excess cortisol. If you get into a Chronic Cardio scenario where you are working out at 85% and higher for extended periods of time you are likely to:

  • develop problems with metabolism, stress management and immune function
  • shift your body’s preferred fuel source from fat to glucose
  • crave carbohydrates and overeat beyond what you have burned through exercise

Looking more closely at the damage wrought by the increase in cortisol production brought on by workouts that are too intense we see that it leads to:

  • break down of muscle tissue
  • suppression of production of key anabolic hormones (testosterone, human growth hormone)
  • fatigue
  • burnout
  • immune suppression
  • loss of bone density
  • decreased fat metabolism
  • increased systemic inflammation
  • increased oxidative damage
  • acceleration of the aging process

So you can see, contrary to conventional wisdom, the type of exercise that can bring optimal health is NOT high intensity, long-term cardio. When I came to this realization it was like a weight was lifted from my shoulders. No longer did I feel as though I could never be truly “fit” if I did not force myself to run endlessly or kill myself on the elliptical machine. Now I understand that moving frequently at a slow pace is part of getting and staying fit, feeling good and extending my life expectancy. It does not mean that I never participate in workouts that are more intense – because I certainly do. But I do them because I want to and I have the energy to do them rather than forcing myself because I believe it is the only way to be “in shape”.

Currently, when I MOVE I choose walking or hiking. It is summer and the weather is nice so I get outside as much as I can. Once winter comes things will change a bit and I will most likely increase the time I spend doing yoga. (Snow shoveling would certainly count as MOVING or even SPRINTING or LIFTING (not PLAYING) but I’ll leave that one up to the G man.) And while I’m not a huge fan of walking on a treadmill I will resort to that if the weather is really terrible and there are few other options. Two hours per week is my minimum but I often do more. I try to align my workouts with my energy level, the weather and the time I have to devote to it on a given day. If I am super-motivated and full of energy I will go for a more intense workout. If the weather is nice outside and I can fit in some walking time I will drive to a nearby park for a long walk with the boys. Sometimes the entire 2-5 hours of moving is accomplished in one day a week if we go on a family hike on a weekend.

Another benefit of being able to exercise outside is the opportunity to commune with nature and contemplate the beauty of God’s creation. It has been something I have found extremely healing on multiple levels. Being able to MOVE outdoors this summer has also been a great way to spend time with my boys and help them gain an appreciation for exercising and enjoying nature. The whining and claims of legs that are “going to fall off” have thankfully subsided significantly. And I hope they are gaining a lifelong habit of making physical activity a priority.

For more information, I highly recommend you check out Mark Sisson’s excellent book, “The Primal Blueprint”.

paleo spirit fitness