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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