The Theology of Exercise

Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way…” 1 Tim 4:7-8

“I need to exercise!” How often have you said that to yourself recently? Why do you feel the need to say that? Or maybe, if you haven’t pondered the desire to exercise, have you found yourself lamenting the fact that you can’t physically do as much as you used to or want to? Maybe you don’t have the energy or physical function to play with your kids or fully commit yourself to a church service project. We all have an idea of what our optimal function should be but unfortunately for most of us, the optimal is not our normal. We all naturally realize that God has created us to have a physical communion and interact with His creation in a very meaningful and material way, yet, how high of a priority do we place on realizing that? My hope and prayer today is that you will discover a deeper theological motivation to consider the benefits of exercise both in a physical and a spiritual context.

The idea of exercise is nothing new but the cultural context that it now plays in our modern lives is. Throughout human history exercise was just part of what you did. You engaged in exercise while working in a field or on a farm or chasing after your dinner. You walked or ran everywhere. You were always moving. Play for kids was running and jumping and building things. There wasn’t much of a difficulty getting the minimal required dosage of exercise because it was built into the normal human experience. Prior to the industrial revolution, and especially now with our technological revolution, exercise as a special event category didn’t really exist. However, we now find ourselves at a time and in a culture where we as a people are becoming deficient in many things, and one of those major categories of needs is movement.

A cursory read through the Old and New Testament will testify to the fact that throughout thousands of years of history, the people of the Bible moved on a regular basis. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. The kingdom of Israel had multiple military conquests and campaigns. Commerce, work and trade all involved physical labor and activity. Even Jesus was a carpenter who worked with his hands and seemingly walked everywhere. Challenging physical movement was a given. As we look closer at the New Testament there are even some specific mentions to athletic training or exercise as metaphors for the Christian life:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.  Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.  So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air.  But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” 1 Cor 9:24-27

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Heb 12:1-2

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.” 2 Tim 4:7-8

These metaphors that utilize a foot race or self-discipline in athletic training help us to better understand the Christian life because these are things that we can, and I will argue, should experience physically.

The daily, grueling toll and grind of training for an event in hope of achieving success impacts our souls for sanctification because through it we better understand what our lives as Christians should be like spiritually. Similar living metaphors exist in other ways as well: marriage, sex, child birth, parenting, work; all of these things that we experience throughout our lives help us to better understanding the temporal reality and eternal consequences of our Christian experience. And like these other experiential metaphors, there are both theological references to their goodness along with pragmatic proofs that show God wants us to engage and enjoy these things. For example, God built into our bodies the chemical wiring to give us enjoyment with sex, intimacy and marriage through endorphins, dopamine and serotonin. He also built into our brains chemicals that create long lasting intimacy bonds such as vasopressin and oxytocin.  We know from scripture that God created marriage, sex, and intimacy for a specific theological reason yet in His great Wisdom and Pleasure, He also created a physical, biological system for us to enjoy it fully in the proper context. Likewise with exercise, God has given us theological metaphors using exercise but He has additionally built into our bodies the capacity to enjoy and be rewarded by engaging in it.

Most of us have heard of a thing called a “runner’s high”. A runner’s high is a physiological reaction to intense or elongated bouts of exercise where essentially the brain rewards the body with a flood of endogenous (naturally occurring in the body) opioid (like morphine or heroine) chemicals that cause euphoria, relaxation and mitigate pain. God has built into our bodies a naturally occurring, intrinsic system to reward us for engaging in physical activity. Yet, we know that this is not the only “reward” or benefit to engaging in exercise. Here are few more:

  1. Improved mental focus and memory.
  2. Reduced stress and anxiety.
  3. Improved mood.
  4. Increased daily energy.
  5. Improved sleep.
  6. Increased strength, endurance, balance and physical function.
  7. Improvement in every organ system leading to a reduction in many chronic diseases.

I could go on but these seven benefits will highlight some of the key features of the effects at routine exercise. These benefits are also further magnified when you consider the effects of not engaging in regular physical activity. The current research is now equating prolonged desk sitting as being just as hazardous to your health as smoking. The rapid rate of physical and mental decline combined with the increased risks of many preventable diseases like diabetes, heart disease and stroke caused by a sedentary lifestyle are staggering. Yet, most, if not all of the chronic diseases that are currently plaguing our Western culture and ravaging our “health care” system can be reversed by regular exercise. Just as an aside, this is why we have to approach our health radically different because, in my opinion, our health care system is actually  a disease management system where the focus is to get you slightly less sick instead of optimally healthy.

So now we find ourselves at a crux. On one side there seems to be an “ought” forming as to why we should exercise that is juxtaposed to an “ought” as to why we should strive to avoid a sedentary life. Yet, is there a foundational theological motivation that will drive us to exercise out of necessity? I believe the answer lies with same question I’ve asked in all my previous articles: “Are we doing all things to the glory of God?” Are we stewarding our bodies for the good of our neighbors and to glory of God? If I know that I could be doing something to improve upon that, but I don’t, am I sinning? In the book “Do More Better” by Tim Challies, he defines Christian productivity as “effectively stewarding your gifts, talents, time, energy, and enthusiasm for the good of others and the glory of God.” 1 If this is true and, as Challies effectively argues in his book, we should be striving out of theological motives to effectively steward all aspects of our life to glorify God and serve others.  This would include managing our health the best we can through both healthy eating and physical activity.

Think about this for a moment. How often have you been frustrated by the fact that you can’t recall as many Bible verses as you would like or your memory isn’t as sharp as it once was? Do you just accept this as a given and there is nothing you can do about it? Yet, there is plenty of research that shows that after engaging in 30-45 minutes of sustained, moderate intensity exercise (60% of your maximum heart rate) you have a roughly 2 hour window of heightened mental focus and capacity to remember things that, drawn out over weeks, months and years, could have a profound effect on how much Bible you memorize and thus how much more of an impact you could have in your family, work, and ministry. The same principle holds true for daily energy. We all have roughly the same 16 hours each day to do things. But, how much of that time is wasted by being low in energy or being unable to focus? Yet, engaging in the same level of exercise as I’ve stated before has been shown to improve daily energy and focus and allow you to sleep more effectively thus improving your energy even more.

I could continue to show you benefit after benefit of the effects of regularly physical activity and in later articles I will go into the “nuts and bolts” of what that looks like practically, but for now I want to leave you to ponder and pray about the questions and arguments brought up in this article. My purpose wasn’t to create a “how to” list but more of a “should I be doing this” self-examination. Over the next few days, consider how well you are stewarding your time and your health and whether or not you could begin to add in more movement to your day. Begin to think about how amazing your body is that God has given you and how much Joy He gets when you utilize it for His glory and to it’s maximum potential.  I hope and pray that this article has been fruitful in cultivating a desire to serve Him with your health and to exercise that desire by glorifying our Father in Heaven.

Dr. Joshua Trock is a doctor of physical therapy with a home-based practice that focuses on geriatric disease management.  Dr. Trock lives in San Antonio, Texas with his wife and daughter. He attends Wayside Chapel and enjoys reading theology, outdoor activities and discovering how to get the most out of the amazing bodies God has blessed us with.

Notes:

  1. Tim Challies, Do more. Better. A practical guide to productivity. (Cruciform Press, December 2015), 16.
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