Summertime has arrived and the health clubs are advertising to get members to “get in shape for the beach”. Unfortunately for many, it ends up a fleeting incentive to sustain activity over time. Over the years I have been involved in educating and training thousands of individuals and organizations to be more physically active. A major focus of this effort has been on designing programs that will motivate others to exercise. That experience has taught me that an individual will not change behavior unless it fits in with a personal worldview. For Catholics, that worldview is the faith we profess. A recent Gallup poll of practicing Christians found that our faith was considered a major influence on our behavior, yet many Christians and the majority of Americans (as in much of the western world) are still sedentary. So why are we not more active and fit? We strive to emulate Jesus Christ and His lifestyle. He was vigorous and had a physically active lifestyle. Why is it so difficult to follow in those footsteps?
In a previous essay, entitled Connecting With Nature, the problem of “nature deficit disorder” as a condition that can keep us from connecting with and appreciating nature was explored within our Catholic faith obligation to be environmental stewards. There is a related condition I call “exercise deficit disorder” which offers an explanation why we are not physically active. It is an alienation from physical activity and from having a close familiarity with our bodies. The results of this condition are seen by the fact that 50% of youth get little or no exercise with an estimated 60% being obese and overweight. Those statistics are no better for adults. It is estimated that approximately 15-20% of adults do strenuous exercise, 25-35% are mildly physically active and approximately 50% are sedentary. Many of the same reasons why we are inactive are the same as for nature deficit disorder such as:
- Too much TV watching
- Texting and I phone usage
- Preference for video and computer recreational games
- Not going outside to play
- Living in a sedentary culture
- Occupational sitting
It is related to nature deficit disorder in that we need energy to function as nature stewards; however, it has many more implications. Just as our faith teaches that we have an obligation to be environmental stewards so we have an obligation to take care of and be stewards of our bodies.
Exercise and the Faith Dimension
I never had the occasion to try to link “faith with fitness” until several years ago when I was challenged to provide fitness and exercise seminars for several groups of diocesan priests and seminarians. Many of the participants were sedentary and expressed that they were extremely overworked experiencing a lack of energy to keep up with their “mission”. While the intent of those programs were to use exercise as a stress management tool it soon became clear that there was also a need for additional motivation to become more active. As a consequence, we explored a more faith-based rationale and motivation to become more active.
So, what does our faith have to say about being fit and active? The Christian faith as expressed by the life of Jesus Christ, the Bible and the theologians and Magisterium teachings of the Catholic Church is our worldview, yet we are not always educated on our faiths’ teaching about our body. That faith, however, has much to say about the nature of our body and our responsibility to care for it.
Our Bodies Were Designed to Move
From the very beginning, God intended for us to be physically active as one of the defining characteristics of our existence. The psalmist describes how our bodies were designed in a masterful manner in Psalms 139:14,“I praise you, so wonderfully you made me.”
One can look at the past and conclude that both strenuous physical activity and a high state of physical fitness were important for survival in ancient times. The critical concept to accept is that they are also needed today in the 21st century. We often fail to see that truth because the day-to-day tasks that most of us have to perform require little if any physical activity or effort. Yet, our bodies have not significantly changed since creation. Because, in so-called modern times, we do not use our bodies that much in day to day living we suffer from hypokinetic diseases – diseases and disorders from lack of activity such as back pain, heart disease, and hypertension. God would not have made our bodies for movement just for our ancestors. The human body was made by God to move for us now and for future generations.
We Are Designed to Have an Integrated Soul and Body
God desires for us is to have that integration within one’s self. We are called to have a wholeness of body and soul. The Apostle Paul spoke often of the body being a temple and as such is holy and deserves respect and presents the notion that one of our roles as ministers of God (his representatives) is to take care of our body since it houses our soul or spirit. While the main focus of his message was on chastity the metaphor of “temple” to represent our body can be generalized to be fit.
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (1 Corinthians 6:19)
In modern times, Pope St. John Paul II alluded to this in his statement in a 1987 Rome address on “ Be Examples of Human Virtues”:
“ In an age that has witnessed the ever-increasing development of various forms of automation, especially in the workplace, reducing the use of physical activity, many people feel the need to find appropriate forms of physical exercise to restore a health balance of mind and body.”
The point to be made is that we are not one-dimensional beings.
We Have a Faith-Based Responsibility for Our Body
Since the body is important (the temple of the Holy Spirit) there is a natural progression to what should be our responsibilities for our body. Consequently, it is part of our Christian responsibility to take care of the body by being physically active. The Apostle Paul refers to this responsibility to honor God with our body in 1 Corinthians 6:20. “For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore glorify God in your body.”
Noted Church theologians in the past such as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas wrote of the duty to care for the body and more recently Pope John Paul II stated the following in a Rome address in 1981 on “Let the Practice of Sport always Promote Peace”.
“ For this reason, the Church does not cease to recommend the best use of this marvelous instrument by a suitable physical education which…trains both body and spirit for effort, courage, balance, sacrifice, nobility, brotherhood, courtesy and in a word, fair play.”
Jesus and the Apostles as Role Models
The concept of modeling as a key factor in learning and motivation is well recognized. For Christians, Jesus is our role model for living. In that sense, he is also our model for a healthy and fit lifestyle. We can infer much from the Gospels about him as a physical role model. First, Jesus was a long distance walker. Secondly, the Gospels tell us that his earthly father Joseph was a carpenter and implies that Jesus practiced the same trade. Thus, Jesus would have worked as strenuously as a lumberjack because carpenters in his day felled and trimmed trees. Jesus’ earthly work career has the highest energy cost of any occupation studied by physiologists. Energy cost is a term that defines the amount of effort (in terms of oxygen or calories) that is required to perform certain types of tasks. To be able to perform extended heavy muscular work requiring a high energy cost would necessitate having very high levels of cardiovascular endurance and strength.
The Apostles also serve as our role models for our lifestyle. First, they walked the great distances with Jesus. Secondly, the Gospels imply that several of the Apostles were fishermen. Fishermen of that day had to load and unload the boats and in many ways performed the tasks that we see the longshoremen of today perform. Physiological studies have shown that a longshoreman has one of the highest energy cost (next to lumberjack) of occupations studied. So as the longshoreman of the modern era, they would have needed high levels of muscular strength and endurance as well as flexibility.
If the logic is accepted that we need to be physically active to be stewards of our bodies that God gave us; the first step is to become familiar with our bodies and physical movement. There are literally hundreds of fitness books, thousands of health clubs and we all have participated in physical education. There is no mystery as to what we need to do or no lack of opportunity or resources to do it. Yet, the inactive lifestyle is still prevalent.
The experience of trying to motivate sedentary individuals to get “moving” has led to applying the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) principle, In other words rather than having to make a perceived huge effort to get involved in exercise, try to just make simple adjustments in daily movement patterns to be more active by incorporating physical activity into your daily life in two ways:
- Seek opportunities to move
Take the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator
Park the car a distance from your destination and walk to it
Stand when you can sit, walk around when you can stand
Take short walk breaks before and after meals
- Decrease sedentary activities by substituting movement activities
Throw away the TV remote
Get up every 20 minutes for a brief walk if on the computer
Instead of sitting and talking – walk and talk with others
If sitting – periodically turn your body left and right and lift legs up on toes
Reflecting on physical movement
To gain familiarity with physical activity also involves reading your body’s response to it by looking, listening and feeling your body as you move. Feeling your heart beat and your muscles stretch can give what is called a ‘kinesthetic” sense to monitoring your body. Likewise, while moving you can reflect on the following:
Am I strong enough to do what I want to do?
Am I flexible enough to not get injured while being active?
Do I get out of breath easily?
These little tips are just “starters” for developing a more active lifestyle. Incorporating movement into daily life will not by itself increase physical fitness or one’s energy level. However, it can serve as first step that provides encouragement to get involved with more strenuous exercise activities. For example, taking daily walks and using a pedometer or Fitbit to count steps is an intermediary exercise activity. Finally, there is a huge fitness and wellness industry that provides more intense exercise programming and instruction opportunities as one gets more into an exercise lifestyle.
I believe that God created us to be happy, healthy, and active. We are a physical animal and in that sense, we were made to move. In turn, we have a faith-based obligation to care for our body and to maximize our energy so that we can fully serve the Lord. Once we become more aware of this and get involved in a physical activity and exercise programs, then we will increase the chances of having and sustaining a healthier lifestyle. In short, we are better prepared for our faith journey by embarking on a more physically active journey.