December 12, 2017

What Is the Point of Exercise?

Wally Morris

It’s not a secret that obesity is a growing problem among Americans. I recently read that 69% of Americans are overweight. How ironic in a society that is fascinated by sports and fitness. Even small communities like the one I live in have a gym or YMCA.

I have been cycling since the early 1980s when a friend of mine who was an amateur competitive cyclist built a 10-speed for me from spare parts that he had. I rode that bike until I wore it out, then about 15 years ago started cycling again with an inexpensive bicycle. When I first started cycling in our community, very few people were cycling. Now I see cyclists all the time, and our small town has even built cycling paths. I also go to the YMCA 4-5 times every week to swim. I grew up near the ocean, lived a quarter mile from a river, and love the water. When I started swimming regularly about a year ago, I thought I would be able to swim many laps because of all the years of cycling. Wrong! Completely different activity and muscles. My wife and I also have a small weight machine that we bought for my wife to use since she had two strokes in her early 20s. She doesn’t use the machine now but instead exercises at the local hospital’s exercise and therapy room. She is determined to do her part to stay healthy. I use our weight machine, and we both use a set of dumbbells that we have.

All of this is introduction to this question: What is the point of exercise and how much exercise is enough? It is very easy to become addicted to exercise and fitness, as it is with almost any activity or hobby. For the person who knows Christ as Savior and who understands that this world is not our home and that we have a different purpose for living than most of the world, what is the balance between exercise and following Christ?

Some Christians like to quote Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 4:8 in order to justify not exercising. Paul says that “…bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things …,” reasoning that we should be more concerned about godliness than spending time exercising. As in all interpretive questions, context helps clarify our understanding. In verse 7, Paul tells us to discipline ourselves for godliness by avoiding false teaching and immersing ourselves in God’s Word. Some false teachers advocated physical discipline in order to develop personal spirituality. Martin Luther famously attempted to fight his sin by physical discipline. The only “profit” in these activities is that they do put our focus on the spiritual aspects of our problems but cannot solve the problems. To use Paul’s words to justify not exercising is a misapplication of what he says. That idea is not in his thinking at all in this verse.

One reason exercise and gyms are popular today is that living today requires less physical exertion than in the past. Many people have jobs that require sitting, and their leisure at home primarily involves sitting. Thus, we have sedentary work and “couch potato” free time. Those in full-time Christian ministry invest much time studying at a desk or table. It’s very easy to eat pastries and consume caffeine. To counteract the less physical requirements of living today, more people go to gyms and play sports. Additionally, much research has demonstrated the importance of exercise, especially given what happens to our body as we age. For example, muscle mass begins decreasing in our late 20s. The percentage of decrease is very small, but over time, that percentage adds up to significant muscle loss, which will create multiple problems and risks to our health. Exercise can slow down this loss and even reverse some of it.

Why is this important for the Christian who, after a few decades of living in this world, will go the place, the city, and the country God has prepared for us (John 14:1-3; Hebrews 11:13-16)? Let me give three reasons. First, your body was given to you by the Lord, a gift to be used wisely and properly (Psalm 139:13-16; Romans 12:1; 1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Respect for God and respect for His gift should motivate us to take proper care of His gift. This proper care can include medications, doctor visits, regular maintenance of the body (brushing teeth, washing, etc.), and, yes, some type of exercise.

Second, your body is the physical tool by which you serve Christ in this world. I exercise because I feel better physically when I exercise (and usually eat healthier foods as well) but also because I want be useful for Jesus Christ as long as humanly possible. I do not want to be careless with the body the Lord has given me and create problems by my own neglect that will interfere with my purpose. Now, of course, many Christians serve Christ in astounding ways with physical bodies that are weak, diseased, and painful. The Lord obviously uses Christians in many different conditions to bring glory to Himself. However, if I have a choice, I prefer to do my part to stay as healthy as possible to serve Christ as long as possible as effectively as possible. Exercise is a means to an end: serving Christ. My lower back tends to become stiff, partly due to sciatica three years ago. Swimming and cycling almost eliminate my lower back pain, giving me more freedom and mobility.

Third, I want to have integrity in my personal testimony. I know that many Christians have health problems and take certain medications that cause weight gain. But I know some Christians, even pastors, who are obviously overweight because they do not know how to control their appetite. I find it ironic that some pastors easily tell people how to live but won’t place restrictions on their own appetite. Unbelievers see this as hypocrisy, and they are not wrong.

It’s very easy to let physical health, exercise, and sports become substitute gods in your life. One characteristic of humanity is that we just about anything easily consumes us. There are people, even a few Christians, who seem to do nothing more than work and exercise. That misses the point completely. They have made a means to an end – exercise – the end itself. When that happens, exercise has probably become that person’s god. The “golden body” has become the golden calf. Some people who have focused their entire life on exercise and sports begin to question the point of what they are doing. Eventually the thinking person begins to work through the logic of what he is doing – an entire life focused on exercise and sports – and begins to question that narrow focus. For example, the Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps usually trained 6 hours every day for six days a week. For about five years, he trained every day. After he had won many medals, he became “burnt out” on swimming and life in general. (Some believe Phelps became a Christian, but he has never clearly stated that.)

Developing the proper balance between exercise and other responsibilities is not easy. It involves regularly reminding ourselves why we are here and where we are going. The “pilgrim attitude” of Hebrews 11 is helpful to remember. This world as it is today is not our final home. We are “passing through” with a purpose very different from the majority who live here. How easy to become part of this world almost without realizing what has happened. We are pilgrims progressing toward the high calling of Jesus Christ, taking care of the gifts He has given us, but not worshiping those gifts either.


Wally Morris is pastor of Charity Baptist Church in Huntington, IN. The church blogsite is amomentofcharity.blogspot.com. He has also published A Time To Die: A Biblical Look At End-Of-Life Issues by Ambassador International.

Comments

  1. Good thoughts Pastor Wally. Appreciate the balanced emphasis.

  2. Physical exercise will help you a little in achieving what matters most – cultivating a personal, daily, obedient relationship with God. http://bit.ly/2vvAisC


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