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Should Christians Be Concerned About Physical Fitness?

by Gary F. Zeolla

Should Christians concern themselves with physical fitness, including exercise and proper dietary practices? Many Christians seem to believe such concerns are unnecessary. This article will look at what the Scriptures have to say on this subject, along with often heard excuses for not following such practices.

Scriptural Evidence

The place to begin is with the book of Genesis, and the story of creation. God created the material world, including our physical bodies, and pronounced them "very good."

Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper, author of many books on physical fitness, elaborates on this idea:
The first step in linking our beliefs to a fitness program is to recognize the Judeo-Christian assumption about the basic goodness of the physical world. It all begins in the book of Genesis, which makes this statement just after the creation had been finished, "Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good" [Gen 1:31]. The same view is echoed by Paul in his letter to Timothy, "For every creature of God is good ..." [1Tim 4:4] (Faith-Based Fitness, p. 23).

Along with stating that "every creature of God is good," Paul also wrote, "So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones" (Eph 5:28-30). So Paul assumed every Christian "nourishes and cherishes" their own bodies.

Jesus said to, "...Love your neighbor as yourself". (Matthew 22:39) This implies that you should love yourself. Part of loving yourself includes taking care of yourself. You would take care of a sick friend, right? Therefore, it follows that you should take care of yourself, thus helping to prevent your own sickness or disability.

Probably the most important Scripture in this regard is 1Corinthians 6:19, "Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own?"

Cooper alludes to this verse in a speech he gave to a crowd of 240,000 during a Billy Graham crusade in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil:
I told the crowd that I had recently become more convinced than ever that each of us is designed to be a flesh and blood temple of God. Our charge on this earth is to serve Christ and our fellow man, to exercise our gifts and talents to the maximum—and to care for all the assets God has given to us, including our bodies" (p.23).

Your body is a "good" and wonderful gift from God. It is capable of miraculous feats, if properly taken care of. And with God the Holy Spirit living inside your "temple" how can you not take care of it?

Often Heard Excuses

But Christians often make many excuses as to why they do not concern themselves with physical fitness practices. Cooper writes after the statement quoted above about the goodness of creation, "Yet I've encountered many Christians and Jews in my medical practice who ignore these Biblical injunctions. Some actually believe their bodies are completely bad "(p. 24).

To "believe our bodies are completely bad" is a very unchristian attitude. It is more along the lines of paganism than Biblical Christianity.

Then there are those Christians who rightly recognize that spiritual matters are of utmost importance in a Christian's life. But they then use this idea to denigrate physical matters like physical fitness. So they may not come right out and say the material world is "bad," but by their ignoring of its importance they in essence end up at the same place.

Dr. Cooper writes in this regard:
[Christians] believe, quite rightly, that the spiritual dimensions of their lives are of supreme importance. But then they proceed to the assumption that their physical bodies are unimportant and may be neglected with impunity. They fail to understand that their spiritual lives—including the values and relationships that they hold so dear—are closely connected with the conditions of their bodies. If the body begins to break down, the person may lack the endurance and energy require to serve others, stay in a good mood, or even spend extended periods in prayer (p.24).

Cooper's last sentence leads to the next excuse, and probably the one most commonly heard, "I don't have the time to be concerned about physical fitness." This excuse can sound particularly "spiritual" when what is occupying ones time is ministry of whatever sort the Lord has called you to do.

But, as Cooper points out, without your health you won't have the energy or ability to do all those things currently occupying your time. And worst of all, your service for the Lord will suffer if your health begins to break down.

Moreover, basic health practices really are not that time consuming. For instance, does it really take that long to eat a good breakfast? It takes five minutes to pour milk over cereal and wash it down with a glass of orange juice. This means only hitting the snooze switch twice rather than three times or simply setting the alarm five minutes earlier. As for other meals, it takes just as long to eat an apple as it does a candy bar. It is just a matter of food choices.

As for exercise, it is not needful or even desirable to put in long hours at the gym. A basic level of physical fitness can be attained in as little as 30 minutes, three or four times a week. More would be needful to attain even more beneficial levels, but about six hours a week is really the most that is needed for general fitness purposes.

Granted this is up to six hours a week that would be taken away from other activities. However, as people get into better shape, they generally find they have more energy, and thus are able to accomplish more during the course of other daily activities. So the end result is increased, not decreased productivity.

Moreover, healthy habits will very possibly increase ones life span, thus increasing the number of years one has to serve the Lord. C.H. Spurgeon, for instance, died at the age of 61, in a considerably overweight state. When he knew his time was near an end, he regretted very much not having taken care of himself over the years. He knew that if he had he would have many more years to serve the Lord. Thus the "no time" argument is not valid.

And finally, numerous diseases and health problems are caused, in part, by poor personal habits:
Eating too much animal food, fat and oil, and sugar, and too few complex carbohydrates such as fruits and vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and legumes, contributes to the development of degenerative diseases. These include Western societies' major killers: heart disease, cancer, obesity, and strokes. It also includes a host of annoying if not fatal conditions, such as constipation, hemorrhoids, gout, osteoporosis, and tooth decay. According to the U.S. Surgeon General's 1988 Report on Nutrition and Health, diet-related diseases account for over two-thirds of all deaths in this country (Mayell, p.3).

However, since Christians know that God is with them, they sometimes feel it is unnecessary to make needed lifestyle changes to help prevent such diseases saying that, "God will protect me." But Satan tempted Jesus to prove he was the Son of God, by telling Him to jump off the temple. Jesus refused, despite knowing that God would save Him, saying, "It is written again, 'You shall not tempt the LORD your God.'" (Matthew 4:5-7) To engage in unhealthy practices while claiming God as your protector is tempting Him.

Paul said, "But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection ..." (1Corinthians 9:27). The key word here is "discipline." Starting and maintaining a proper diet and exercise program involves more than anything else, discipline and caring enough for yourself (again, "...as you love yourself") to take care of yourself.

Qualifiers

Having said the above, a couple of qualifiers are needed. Although following a proper diet and exercise program is important, a Christian should not obsess over it either. In regards to diet, Paul wrote, "for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom 14:17).

People should not make what they eat, or don't eat, into their religion. For instance, when talking to some vegetarians it becomes obvious that their dietary practices are the focal point of their lives. For the Christian this would be inappropriate. Christ is our focal point. We should be concerned with our diet only to the degree that our dietary habits help us better serve the Lord.

Similarly, exercise should not become an obsession. Paul wrote, "For bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come" (1Tim 4:8). So Paul recognizes that physical exercise has some profit, it is important. But there are also more important things in life; namely our relationship to God.

So again, exercise should not become our focal point in life. Moreover, as indicated above, it takes 2-6 hours to attain an adequate level of fitness. The six hour figure refers to working out for an hour six days a week. There is no reason as far as general fitness goes to exercise more than this. In fact, doing more can actually be deleterious, over-training can result, and the risk of injury increases exponentially.

Conclusion

So there are two mistakes a Christian can make in regards to physical fitness. The first is to not be concerned about it at all; the second is to become obsessed with it. A balanced concern for diet and exercise is needful so that Christians will have the vigor to better serve God and our fellow human beings.

To aid Christians in developing this balanced concern for physical fitness, I set up this Fitness for One and All Web site and wrote my book Creationist Diet.

Note: The tidbit about C.H. Spurgeon I read in a book a while ago, but I forget where. So I cannot give a specific reference for it. It was probably in one of the many books I gave away recently when I was doing some "spring cleaning."

The links below are direct links to where the book can be purchased from Books-A-Million.

Bibliography:
Cooper. Dr. Kenneth H. Faith Based Fitness . Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995. (Note: This is the paperback edition. The hardback version is titled, It's Better to Believe).
Mayell, Mark. 52 Simple Steps to Natural Health. New York: Pocket Books, 1995.
Zeolla, Gary. Creationist Diet: Nutrition and God-given Foods According to the Bible. AuthorHouse, 2000.

Disclaimer: The material presented in this article is intended for educational purposes only. The author is not offering medical or legal advice. Accuracy of information is attempted but not guaranteed. Before undertaking any diet or exercise program, one should consult your doctor. The author is in no way responsible or liable for any bodily harm, physical, mental, or emotional, that results from following any of the advice in this article.

Note: All Scripture references from: The New King James Version. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982, unless otherwise indicated.

Should Christians Be Concerned About Physical Fitness? Copyright 1999 by Gary F. Zeolla.

The above article was posted on this Web site September 15, 1999
and updated July 20 2003

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