My fitness-class instructor was doing her best to keep us holding our planks for a few seconds longer. “C’mon, ladies! Who’s going to have a smaller waist size than their neighbor? June is coming! Are you ready?”
I cringed at her motivational tactics — using competition with other women and having a beach-ready body as the primary reasons to exercise. Our Western culture mainly focuses the benefits of exercise on our outward appearance, along with the perk of living free from sickness. But as Christians, our motivation to steward our bodies well should run far deeper than wearing a smaller dress size. The answer isn’t to forgo exercise altogether, but to focus on the purposes behind physical training. Exercise can be a good and healthy discipline to invest in when done for the right reasons.
Is Exercise a Luxury?
In our fast-paced society, it can be easy to feel like we don’t have time to exercise. Work deadlines, household chores, the kids’ activity schedules, and ministry commitments can make us feel like there isn’t an inch of room left for working out. We can become so busy with the tyranny of the urgent or with caring for others that it seems impossible to care for ourselves.
Exercise can seem like a luxury we can’t afford, something routinely listed in our New Year’s resolutions but then crossed off the list the third week in January. Or, by the time we feel like we have a small window of opportunity, our energy has plummeted, and we’d much rather sit on the couch with a bowl of ice cream and Netflix. Recognizing the various blessings of exercise can provide the motivation we need to create space in our busy lives.
Benefits of Exercise
Exercise offers a mountain of benefits, from keeping our hearts pumping and muscles strong, to increasing our energy levels, to providing emotional highs that come from the release of endorphins. In Shona Murray’s book Refresh, she comments on the medical studies that validate exercise even as a means of fighting depression: “Exercise and proper rest patterns generate about a 20 percent energy increase in an average day, while exercising three to five times a week is about as effective as antidepressants for mild to moderate depression” (72).
Personally, I exercise as much for the emotional benefits as for the physical benefits. Throughout my adult life, I’ve been prone to emotional highs and lows, and sometimes the lows are pretty deep. Some days, I need to pray for strength to get out of bed and do the next thing, exercise being one of them. I’ve learned that as I keep the discipline of heading to the gym or going out for a jog, I’m rewarded with a happier spirit and an increase in energy. God often uses exercise as a means to turn my sullen mood toward a joyful one.
And when my body is not dragging me down, I find it less difficult to delight myself in the Lord. Exercise has a way of clearing the cobwebs from my brain and helping to hold my focus on the promises of Scripture. It wakes me up to more readily hear the sound of God’s voice through Bible reading and meditation. It can help me to focus on memorizing a particular section of Scripture and keep me engaged as I pray for the needs around me.
The world tells us exercise is primarily a tool for our vanity and for living longer. Here are five reasons to pursue a regular exercise plan — not related to looking your best in your bathing suit.
1. Exercise in order to steward the earthly tent God has given you.
Keeping our hearts pumping and our bodies strong will enable us to keep going, even as we age. Just as God gives us money to use wisely, relationships to invest in diligently, and time to use efficiently, so he gives us a body to steward well.
We honor our Creator when we care for the bodies entrusted to us through exercise and eating nutritious food. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19–20).
2. Exercise in order to serve others.
Jesus redeemed us from sin in order that we might be zealous for good works (Titus 2:14). Surely a life spent pouring ourselves out for the sake of others will come more easily with a strong and healthy body.
We use the strength of our arms to lift babies or children we care for, or to shovel snow for an elderly neighbor. We use our legs to travel to places that need to hear the good news of Jesus, whether at your friend’s house across the street or an unreached people group on the other side of the world.
3. Exercise in order to keep your brain awake and alert.
Murray writes, “Research has shown that walking just two miles a day reduces the risk of cognitive decline and dementia by 60 percent and increases problem-solving abilities and efficiency” (Refresh, 72).
Regular exercise can help us continue to be students of God’s word as we grow and learn through regular study and meditation, unpack the promises of Scripture, and apply it all to our daily lives. “Preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13).
4. Exercise in order to evangelize.
Regular exercise programs give us easy ways to meet people, establish relationships, and share our faith. In the midst of my tightly scheduled workout between school drop-offs, I’m tempted to be laser focused on accomplishing my goals. But when I’m willing to take my earbuds out, I’ve had the pleasure of forming new relationships, sharing my faith, and inviting a new friend to Bible study, all while on the elliptical.
Unexpected spiritual conversations can happen when we keep our eyes and ears open to those around us. “Always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
5. Exercise in order to delight yourself in God.
George Müller once said,
The first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was, to have my soul happy in the Lord. The first thing to be concerned about was not, how much I might serve the Lord, how I might glorify the Lord; but how I might get my soul into a happy state, and how my inner man may be nourished. (A Narrative of Some of the Lord’s Dealings with George Müller, 1:271)
For some of us, getting our souls happy in Christ might mean we start our day with exercise in order to better focus on the truths of God’s word. Pray yourself out of bed and to the gym as a means of waking yourself up to ready your mind and heart for the intake of Scripture.
The stress that can result from difficult circumstances in our lives or the brokenness of the world around us can be consuming. Use exercise as a secondary means of fighting to keep the right perspective in life. As some of the haze disappears through a brisk walk or bike ride, meditate on the promises of God’s word. Fight to believe that his ways are a thousand times better than the ways of the world, the riches of heaven so much better than the riches of the world.
“A day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness” (Psalm 84:10).
“Train yourself for godliness,” Paul writes, “for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:7–8).
Whether you carve out twenty minutes each day or an hour a few days each week, make a habit of fighting for joy in Christ through the habit of exercise. Regular exercise is worth so much more than a flat stomach or a smaller waist size. It can be a pathway toward deeper love and joy in our heavenly Father.