“Be the very best you”.
“Get that beach body ready”.
“Boost your self-esteem”.
“Impress others with your gains”.
“You deserve to look good”.
If you have spent any time in the exercise and fitness world, no doubt you have encountered motivations like these. You may have experienced them through popular marketing and advertisements, or in the familiar tugging temptation within your own heart.
Sorting through these motivations to try and find truth is a lot like boating through the murky mist looking for the shoreline. It’s hazy, humbling, and laggardly work. Proverbs likens this heart-discerning process to drawing out water from a very deep well (Proverbs 20:5), and the job requires effort, wisdom, and understanding.
Fortunately, God has given us His Spirit and His Word to equip us for discernment. God’s Word is the light to our path (Psalm 119:105) and the sufficient and capable tool that can help us sort through the motivations and intentions of our hearts (Hebrews 4:12). Being firmly planted with biblical conviction helps us stay on course as we navigate the murky waters of our own hearts towards any pursuit.
As we navigate these exercise waters as Christians, the ultimate motivation for exercise is stewarding your body in such a way that would bring glory to God.
But I think we can go one layer beneath this truism and look at four underlying biblical motivations for the Christian to pursue exercise and fitness.
1. Exercise uses our bodies.
We live in a sedentary society that sits constantly. The American Heart Association reported that over 80% of U.S. adults have predominantly sedentary jobs, which require minimal movement throughout the day. Most of the workday is spent sitting at a computer in an office or sitting through meetings. And when you include the time spent sitting each day during a commute and any other sitting time while at home (watching TV, eating dinner, lounging, etc…), it’s not surprising to hear that the American worker sits for 15 hours per day.
And this regular inactivity causes decay in our health. Prolonged sitting over time puts us at greater risk for obesity, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and other chronic diseases. Habitual sitting can strain our neck, shoulders, back, and hips. And perhaps even most shocking, prolonged sitting may have a negative long-term impact on cognitive function (memory) and may increase depression and anxiety.
If we have the power and ability to move, then we should steward the bodies given to us by God by regular and faithful movement. Letting our bodies decay by habitual inactivity when we have the strength to use them is negligent body-stewardship. If our jobs do not require movement, then we can outsource the absent movement through regular and diligent exercise.
The faithful stewards put their talents to work by use (Matthew 25:16-17), but the wicked steward buried his talent in the ground and neglected it (Matthew 25:18). Our bodies were not designed by God for idle sitting all day, but they were given to be used. This diligent, faithful, body-stewardship brings God glory.
2. Exercise strengthens us for our work.
This would have been an obvious observation in an agrarian society. A healthy and strong farmer would have been able to work his land and tend his animals more efficiently and effectively. But what about us in the sedentary, knowledge-working world?
Studies show that exercise is linked to improved cognitive performance. Information retention and sharper mental processing improve with exercise. Fitness also reduces stress, helps clear our minds, and there have been some studies that even suggest that exercise may improve creativity. Both the cognitive and the physical benefits of exercise make us stronger and more energized for the work and responsibilities the Lord has given us.
To put it another way, this cognitive and physical strength can be used to love one another more effectively (1 John 3:11). As a husband, your strength can be used to better love and protect your wife. As a father, your strength can be poured into engagement and leadership for your kids. As a church member, your strength can be used to serve those in the church and guard the church from threats. As a worker, your strength can be used to better produce for your customers or employer. Loving one another by your strength brings God glory.
3. Exercise subdues our passions.
Exercise aids our sanctification as Christians. I made the connection between body-stewardship and sanctification in a previous post (The Long Road of Body-Stewardship), but I want to explore this relationship one step deeper.
Sanctification is a two-part, Spirit-empowered process (Galatians 5:16-17) of putting off of the old self (Colossians 3:5) and a putting on of the new self (Colossians 3:12). It is a daily, ongoing, and lifelong grind that makes us more like Christ by mortifying our sin and transforming our inner man into His likeness.
For most of the Christian life, the Spirit works through our everyday experiences to shape us into the type of people that bear Christ’s image. For example, He uses the relationships with others in the church (Colossians 3:12-17), our marriages (Colossians 3:18-19), our parenting (Colossians 3:20-21), and our workplaces (Colossians 3:22-4:1) to work out our sanctification. Exercise is just another means the Spirit can use to sanctify us.
The first piece of the sanctification process is a death blow to the old self. This “putting off” of the old self is a deadly engagement with sinful desires. In walking by the Spirit, we won’t “gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16), but instead, we will mortify them.
With exercise, there are several passions that we confront and put to death. We have to deal with our desire to be lazy, which leads to idleness (2 Thessalonians 3:6) and the sluggardly neglect of our body’s strength. We have to deal with our desire for gluttony, which is harmful and destructive to the body when left unchecked (Proverbs 23:20-21). We will also have to deal with our desire to quit when we encounter difficulty, which is a tiny but foundational lesson in steadfastness (James 1:4). This regular subduing of earthly passions brings God glory.
4. Exercise develops self-control.
If through exercise we are “putting off” laziness, gluttony, and the desire to quit when faced with difficulty, then we are “putting on” and replacing them with the steady and formidable trait of self-control (Galatians 5:23, Titus 1:8, 2 Peter 1:6-8).
The Greek word used for self-control in these verses indicates mastery over sensual desires and passions. Self-control places you in the drivers’ seat over your desires so that they do not drive you. Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23), a pre-requisite for pastoral ministry (Titus 1:8), and is a quality that will help us from being “ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:6, 8). Just let that last one sink in for just a minute.
With fitness, we constantly have to say “no” to unhelpful desires and say “yes” to desires that might not be as strong. Your mind and muscles may groan when you wake up at 5:00 am to exercise for the first time. Your desires will rebel at first when you say no to pizza and instead replace it with grilled chicken and vegetables. And you may want to quit after only two weeks of making these types of decisions.
But these battles will slowly develop the invaluable trait of self-control over laziness, gluttony, and the desire to quit. The war is constant, but it is won in the little, moment-by-moment decisions made consistently over time. And this steady progress into self-control brings God glory.
This war is fought continually on the landscape of our murky hearts. But through the Spirit’s power and by the light of God’s Word, we can take steady, consistent steps in our worthy walk, and exercise can be a means God can use to strengthen, sanctify, and bless others through you.
- The Secret of Samson’s Strength
- 5 Tactics for Exercise While on Vacation
- A Minimalist Home Gym: 6 Exercise Equipment and 10 Workouts
- The 8-Week Core Program, the Six-Pack, and the Christian
- 5 Tips for Sticking to an Exercise Routine All Year
- “Thoughts for Young Men”: Dangerous Procrastination
- The Long Road of Body-Stewardship
- Outdoor Workout: HIIT Picnic Table Edition
- The Snoozy Sluggard in Proverbs
- The 10 Minute Warm Up
Fitness Resources Grounded in Biblical Truth