Since developing a back problem in April, I have done something I haven’t done in years: I have joined a gym! Mind you, although I have been a regular exerciser for most of my adult life, I have never liked gyms. There’s the expense and then sometimes the atmosphere—obsession and sweat! I have to say that the California Family Fitness in Folsom is a great place. And it has some of the things that I need right now like a lap pool and some of the things I enjoy like a coffee bar! Taking this step has also led me to a mature reevaluation of this whole exercise thing. Our contemporary culture places a premium on being fit, and we, as a whole, spend a lot of money in that direction. If we don’t belong to a club or gym, we buy exercise equipment (that often goes unused). Is exercise a good thing? Is it really necessary? Should Christians exercise? Our souls are the important enduring part of us, not our bodies, right?
First of all, I think physical exercise is critical to us moderns. Our ancestors got a LOT of physical activity that is now missing in our lives. People used to walk everywhere. There was no mechanized anything, and few were overweight! Today we are amazingly sedentary. We sit to travel. We sit to work. And we pay the price with “life-style related” problems like heart disease. Our bodies were made to be used, and, as we learn with age, “if you don’t use it, you lose it!” Exercise is absolutely vital for our overall physical (and perhaps mental) health.
Second, exercise is good self-discipline, and self-discipline is a virtue (Galatians 5:23), although physical discipline has its limits. The Apostle Paul makes this point: “Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” We know what “physical training” might entail. “Training in godliness” would be what? Prayer, fasting, service to others, self-control, humility, etc. “Godliness” will make you a better person and prepare you for eternity. “Godliness” embraces a whole “life-style” that is devoted to God of which exercise may be a good part.
The key here is our approach to bodily maintenance. There is a wrong way to do this. Obsession is harmful. We should not “hang out” at the gym. Most of us are not going to be Olympic or professional athletes, although if you are young and have the talent and desire, you should go for it! We should not be worshipping ourselves in the mirror, nor should we be lusting after other gym members! Our exercise should not make us more aggressive, and weight training is not a cure for feelings of inferiority. Too much exercise is futile: we all get old and die. Fit people just make attractive corpses!
Let us look at the positive side! Yes, we need to be active. Exercise should make us calm, energized, and relaxed. Exercise should be enjoyable! As we persist and get better at an activity, it becomes more enjoyable. We have to put in the time to develop the skills and strength. What do you think about while you exercise? Whatever the iPod is playing? Try praying while you run or swim. Maybe the Jesus Prayer (or maybe “Lord, please help me keep swimming!”). Pray for those around you. Have you gotten to know some folks in that exercise class? Do you have a workout buddy? How are they doing spiritually? Is there someone around you that you can help? Wherever we go as Christians becomes our area of ministry. We carry Christ’s love with us to the gym.
What about yoga? Lots of folks are doing yoga these days. I am doing some yoga as part of my effort to vary my exercise routine. Yoga has ancient roots in Hinduism, and its spiritual principles are completely contrary to and incompatible with Christianity. Having said this, most of the physical yoga being taught in America these days is just a unique form of exercise, not a means of “spiritual absorption into the divine.” If you are doing yoga to strengthen and tone, then great. If your instructor starts presenting yoga as a form of “self-realization,” find another class.
One of my favorite images from the recent Olympics is the petite Ethiopian runner Meseret Defar winning the 5000 meters. She fell to her knees, broke into tears, and then took out, reverenced, and showed us a little fabric icon of the Theotokos and Christ that she had pinned into her top. I shed a few tears watching her. She gave a poignant witness to her Christian faith, and she showed the vital connection there can be between physical exercise and faith. Here is my point: Exercise is part of a balanced Christian life and it might even make you a better Christian! If you are not doing anything, let me challenge you to get off the couch! Start small. Take a walk. Bad knees or back? Find a pool. Dance! Work in the yard! Physical activity will give you more energy, make you feel better, and it will help your over-all discipline. Exercise is a worth-while investment as long as we keep it in perspective and recognize its “strengths” and limitations.