Physical Fitness


Exercise—what makes me hate it?

Adam and Eve’s story possibly provides meaningful clues about how God designed humankind. Genesis 2:15 (NIV) states, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” From this verse, we assume that God ordained all humankind to work, and that Adam and Eve spent their days working in the Garden. The Bible never mentions explicitly what the work included, but gardening usually includes strenuous tasks such as pruning, digging and lifting. When not working in the garden, they probably spent the other parts of their day gathering (picking, cutting, digging, and carrying) food to eat. Since the Bible never mentions any other occupation, we assume they probably worked and exercised almost all day. Until God cursed the ground, they avoided painful toil, but not strenuous exercise. God ordained physical work as the norm in the Garden of Eden.

After their spiritual fall, God says, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:17, NIV). From that time forward, Adam and Eve worked and exercised with painful toil, and the rest of humankind must follow in their footsteps. Modern anthropologists agree, telling us that prehistoric man probably exercised at the level of today’s elite athletes, walking and running in excess of four hours per day. The adage, “no pain, no gain,” applies as much to the lifestyle of ministers today as it applied to Adam and Eve after the “fall.”

God ordained exercise as the norm even in the idyllic Garden of Eden and requires strenuous physical activity (and painful toil) as a normal consequence for living in a fallen world.

In contrast to burnout, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-30, NIV). Some individuals assume that “rest for your souls” eliminates the need for physical, painful toil. Although Jesus talks about “rest for your souls,” some possibly try to read more into the passage than He says. These individuals would assert that redeemed Christians do not need to worry about “painful toil” because their physical burden lifts along with their spiritual burden. That is, Genesis 3:17 ceases to apply to Christians.

If the curse of “painful toil” vanishes for Christians, why does the other part of the curse—physical death—still apply to Christians and non-Christians alike? To lift the curse of painful toil while retaining a curse of physical death looks like a double standard in reasoning. And, most missionaries quickly realize that pastors in undeveloped regions of the world still suffer from painful toil as much as their unsaved neighbors. In some countries, pastoring a church almost guarantees a substandard, painful existence below the living standard of their non-Christian neighbors. Even in industrialized nations, most farmers quickly point to the ground itself—the ground remains just as hard and grows just as many thorns and weeds for Christian farmers as for non-Christian farmers. The earth remains cursed, and all who live on it still deal with the curse. Regardless of the outlook on the phrase “painful toil,” God ordained physical labor as the norm for Adam and Eve even before their spiritual fall. To assume that modern humankind may avoid labor and instead rest in ease may indicate a not-too-subtle acceptance of the prosperity gospel.

 When we choose to avoid God’s natural rhythms, consequences inevitably result.

In contrast to the rigorous exercise of the primitive societies in the world, only 26 percent of North Americans exercise at a level recommended for physical and mental health (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2003). More than half (59 percent) of North Americans engage in no physical exercise at all. The modern office setting for many Christians throughout the world resembles the North American sedentary existence. However, God never designed humankind—fallen or otherwise—for the modern North American sedentary lifestyle. Worse yet, some individuals from the modern industrialized world assume that ignoring Genesis 3:17 confers no consequences.

In North America, the sedentary lifestyle stimulates the highest rates of burnout and depression in the world (Kessler et. al., 2005). The rate of depression in North America soars approximately ten times higher than two generations ago. In contrast, the Amish show the lowest rates of burnout and depression of any people group in North America (Egeland and Hostetter, 1983). However, physical work and exercise characterizes their lifestyle.

Also note the Kaluli (hunter/gatherers) of Papua New Guinea. In spite of their extremely difficult living conditions (possibly similar to what many would consider as painful toil), they rarely show any sign of depression. Thus, avoidance of exercise seems to leave humans significantly susceptible to depression (Penedo and Dahn, 2005; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1999).

Exercise—what makes it so difficult?

Ministers in the early 1900s exercised as a normal routine in their daily life. They walked great distances between towns and cities, labored to construct their homes, hauled water from the well, raised animals to eat, carried food home from the local market, and often even made their own clothes and washed them by hand. In contrast, modern missionaries fly in an airplane, drive an agency-owned automobile, and prepare Bible school lectures and newsletter articles while sitting at an office desk. Pastors and missionaries live extremely stressful lives. Yet, many find that exercise in a modern world remains a difficult choice.

The ministerial lifestyle sometimes inhibits exercise. In many cities and countries, sidewalks either don’t exist or so many people fill them that a brisk walk or jog is out of the question. In other countries, jogging on a public street invites robbery or death by a vehicular accident. In many industrialized countries, the culture promotes a sedentary lifestyle in which a minister sits at an office desk, commutes to work by automobile, and returns to a walled compound with many of the conveniences of a modern society. Somehow, this modern sedentary lifestyle seems the antithesis of the painful toil and physical labor mentioned in Genesis 3:17.

What keeps ministers from exercising? I’ve heard a long list of excuses. Stephen Ilardi (The Depression Cure) states that it boils down to this—exercise is hard work. When we exercise only for the sake of health, exercise feels like toil. God said humankind would toil, and toiling (exercising when we don’t feel like it) feels unpleasant. However, toiling remains part of the curse, and God states that it will even feel “painful.”

Ilardi notes that prehistoric humankind (especially after Adam and Eve departed the garden) never needed to try to exercise. That is, they didn’t need a treadmill to maintain fitness. To survive, they had to exercise. They survived day after day by toiling, often painfully. The curse extended throughout their life. When farming made food a little more plentiful, they almost certainly avoided exercise in their spare time. They probably conserved their reserve energy for the next crop planting or the next hunt, rather than jumping on the equivalent of a treadmill.

Indeed, the Bible refers to humankind’s efforts to gather food, raise crops, herd animals, hunt, and work. But it never mentions the need for a treadmill. If we gave Adam, Noah, King David, or even Jesus a treadmill, they would certainly laugh at the thought of needing to get additional exercise. Ilardi notes that when we see a treadmill, our first thought says, “Don’t get on that machine. That thing isn’t going anywhere. It has no purpose. Save your energy for the next crop planting or the next hunt.” Regardless, God expects us to labor (exercise).

For Christians in industrialized societies, the avoidance of exercise perhaps represents the most overlooked source of synchronization. The same principle holds true for middle class Christians in non-industrialized societies.

In contrast to the culture of Adam and Eve, industrialized societies make exercise seem like an option. Some even view exercise as archaic as the word “toil.” Few Christians choose to toil, physically. How many more especially try to avoid the painful toil? Possibly, most Christians no longer believe the curse. They would say, “This applies only to Adam and Eve, certainly not to me. I’m a missionary, or an evangelist, or a computer scientist, or a redeemed saint!

Some ministers discuss their fear of synchritization. That is, they fear the potential of unwittingly synchritizing their Christian values with the surrounding culture.

A few ministers suffer burnout and depression in spite of regular exercise. In my experience, however, they represent a rare exception. Although regular exercise may rarely fail to prevent burnout and depression, those who experience burnout and depression subsequently avoid regular exercise (Seligman, 1990; Penedo and Dahn, 2005; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1999).

Exercise—how do I know that it is good?

First of all, God ordained strenuous physical activity as the norm for fallen humankind. That alone represents enough reason to for me as a minister to choose this activity even when I dislike it. However, recent secular research on burnout shows that exercise provides a benefit equivalent to cognitive therapy (Fremont & Craighead, 1987), and antidepressants (Blumenthal et al, 1999, 2008). It also lowers the rate of relapse compared to other interventions (Babyak et al, 2000) and reduces the risk of depression (e.g. Ross & Hayes, 1988). Suffice to say, whatever God ordains is good—even when it feels painful.

A study from the Copenhagen City Heart Study showed that going for a jog regularly affects your longevity. Women who regularly jogged lived 5.6 years longer than women who didn’t, and men who jogged lived 6.2 years longer than those who didn’t.

The study looked at 20,000 people and assessed the mortality rates of 1,116 male joggers and 762 female joggers with the non-joggers. The results showed that over 35 years, the risk of dying over the course of the study was reduced by 44 percent for joggers.

Exercise—how much is a good thing?

Due to God’s mandate, this question remained irrelevant throughout most of history. Exercise became a choice for the first time in the later part of the 20th century. In much of the world it remains a choice in the 21st century.

Check with your doctor before beginning a new fitness program to determine your ability to exercise. To prevent burnout and depression, Stephen Ilardi (2009) recommends 30 minutes of aerobic exercise three times a week. He recommends meeting with an exercise consultant for the first six weeks.

Aerobic Range

Age 70% Maximum Heart Rate 80% Maximum Heart Rate 90% Maximum Heart Rate 100% Maximum Heart Rate
20-24 140 160 180 200
25-29 137 156 176 195
30-34 133 148 171 190
34-39 130 144 166 185
40-44 126 139 162 180
45-49 122 136 156 174
50-54 119 132 153 170
55-59 116 128 149 165
60-64 112 124 144 160
65-69 109 124 140 155
70+ 105 120 135 150

Exercise 4-1: If you feel able to exercise, find an aerobic exercise in which your heart rate remains within the range shown in the table above. Start at a level no higher than the 70 percent maximum heart rate (see second column above). Try to maintain yourself at the 70 percent level for 30 minutes. If you can’t talk with some difficulty while maintaining the 70 percent heart rate, then back off to the next level shown for someone who is slightly older than yourself. Keep backing down to the next level for someone slightly older than yourself until you find a heart rate at which you can talk with some difficulty while maintaining the exercise for about 30 minutes. When your endurance increases enough that the 70 percent level feels comfortable, gradually move up to the 80 percent level. Proceed to the 90 percent level only after the 80 percent level feels comfortable. Proceed to the 100 percent level only with approval from your physician.

Exercise—what motivates us?

Humankind naturally tries to avoid exercise (especially painful toil). Thus, no known clay tablets or prehistoric writings record the development of treadmills or any other exercise equipment. Trudging to a nearby gym on a regular basis may seem like a far cry from the Garden of Eden. Stephen Ilardi (p.117) notes, “… we’re designed to avoid extra physical activity—but what about necessary activity?”

Like prehistoric humankind on a deer hunt, when we possess a clear goal or purpose the activity seems easier, if not enjoyable. He notes, “… whenever we’re caught up in enjoyable meaningful activity, our tolerance for exercise goes up dramatically.” Thus, he urges us to make our workouts as purposeful as possible. For instance, defeating your coworker in a game of table tennis seems more interesting than pedaling an exercise bike; jogging through scenic countryside seems more exhilarating than jogging on a treadmill; dancing in your living room with your spouse seems more enticing than lifting weights; and jogging with a friend seems more interesting than jogging on a treadmill.

Brainstorm ways to build purpose into your exercise routine. Thus, exercising with great music seems much more enjoyable than exercising in silence. Likewise, listening to an audio-book or taped sermon makes exercise more enjoyable than exercising without purposeful thought. One word of caution—avoid using anything that might impair your ability to hear traffic while jogging on a street.

Often, a social purpose motives exercise. Thus, walking with someone else lifts the mood more than exercising alone. Ilardi notes (p. 126), “The latest research suggests that exercising with others may be more effective in fighting depression than working out alone.” Even when the social contact comes from an exercise coach, the coach provides purpose and direction. Some individuals search for a dog (canine) as a regular workout companion. Pets also enjoy exercise as long as it occurs with the one they love.

If pre-historic humans didn’t exercise just for the sake of exercise, you probably won’t either. When you pair the exercise with an enjoyable activity like one of those listed below, or with an individual with whom you enjoy fellowship, your motivation to exercise will soar.

Ilardi also recommends finding at least three aerobic activities. As the climate, workload, or location changes, you can easily transition from one exercise activity to another. If you choose only one activity, you may eventually feel bored and quit altogether. Worse yet, any change in climate, workload or travel can easily torpedo your exercise routine. Walking satisfies many individuals, especially when they can walk with a friend or spouse. However, broaden your activities to include more choices than walking.

Consider outdoor activities (only in safe locations) such as:

  • Walking
  • Golf (when walking at a brisk rate)
  • Jogging
  • Swimming
  • Cycling
  • Skating or skiing
  • Hiking
  • Climbing
  • Yard work
  • Home remodeling

Consider competitive sports (especially indoor) such as:

  • Basketball
  • Soccer
  • Tennis or table tennis
  • Racquetball or handball
  • Badminton
  • Volleyball

Consider activities in a gym such as:

  • Exercise machines (treadmill, row machine, stair-step machine, cycling)
  • Weight lifting
  • Self-defense class
  • Aerobics class

Exercise 4-2: List three aerobic activities that you can pursue at different times of the year. What is your plan to pursue them?

Exercise 4-3: Find an exercise accountability partner. An accountability partner will usually provide a meaningful nudge to get you started. And, you will, in turn, provide that same nudge to your partner. That is, your accountability partner needs you as much as you need him or her. List two individuals who might serve as your accountability partners.

Exercise—when and how long?

As soon as you identify an exercise, write out a schedule that includes when to start and stop and a weekly routine that provides for exercise at evenly spaced intervals throughout the week. Dr. Cooper, in Faith Based Fitness says, “Your schedule will never magically ‘open up’ unless you understand that your basic faith demands that you take good care of your body. And that means making a firm commitment that will get you off your backside and launch you on a life-changing program.” At least three times per week, try to set aside at least one hour to change clothes, exercise, shower afterward, and cool down. Since exercise pumps endorphins into the blood, exercise inhibits sleep until the endorphins dissipate—about three hours. Therefore, try to finish exercising at least three hours before bedtime.

A lifestyle that includes daily exercise offers many benefits for physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Ministers, even more than other members of the  secular society, struggle with depression. Two common depression symptoms—lack of energy and lack of concentration—make it challenging to maintain a consistent devotional life. This spiritual deficit leads to a deep sense of guilt. Moderate exercise can break this vicious cycle. In addition to preventing depression, exercise provides the following dividends:

  • Energy. Exercise unlocks energy. Even a half-hour workout or a quick walk around the block will provide you with an extra lift and the ability to stay focused throughout a busy day.
  • Weight Control. A trip to the health club results in calories burned. Calories burned equals weight loss. Research indicates that a healthy dose of physical exercise suppresses the appetite, helping you to curb the urge to reach for that second helping, extra candy bar, or piece of cake.
  • Sense of Well-being. Extended physical activity causes the brain to release endorphins. These chemicals reduce stress and anxiety and promote feelings of peacefulness. Exercise almost always lifts the mood.
  • Financial Savings. Yes, it’s true! If you exercise, clothes will fit properly and last longer. Preventative health efforts also pay off in money saved on medications and health care charges.
  • Restful Sleep. People who engage in sports or physical activity savor the effects of sound slumber. With less anxiety, sleep is undisturbed and restorative. Better rest results in higher productivity and contentedness. However, try to finish your exercise routine at least three hours before bedtime.

If you find yourself the least bit ambivalent about exercise, we highly recommend Faith-based Fitness: The Medical Program That Uses Spiritual Motivation To Achieve Maximum Health And Add Years To Your Life, by Dr. Kenneth Cooper. His book helps Christians to build motivation for setting up and maintaining a reasonable exercise program.

Faith-Based Fitness (by Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper)

51z1ZzbDTJL__BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_Please click on the book cover to order.

© 2013 Nathan Davis

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