Working Out Our Salvation (Literally)

Exploring the Tension between Fitness and Godliness

Sam Bush / 6.30.21

I was wrong about exercise.” That’s what a friend who has been regularly attending a workout group recently told me. His point, I think, was that, by minimizing exercise as something trivial, he had downplayed all of its benefits. The vanity of beach body dieting and the religiosity of exercise are more than enough for one to snub one’s nose at the altar of physical fitness. But then, one day, you go for a hike. Your lungs feel like a dusted-off accordion that still works fine. The satisfying feeling of muscle soreness almost feels like sanctification. And then, for the first time in months, you get a good night’s sleep. In that way, what my friend had written off as superficial self-worship turned out to help him in a way he never expected.

My friend’s initial apprehensions about exercise were justified, of course. The modern approach to exercise has turned a boon into a burden. Even the word “workout” suggests that exercise is far from play, but, rather, a modern solution to modern problems. The stresses of working in an economy that maximizes productivity, the ever-increasing demands upon one’s schedule and the anger that builds over time from living in a high-conformity society all demand an outlet for physical release. Hence the reason why office complexes have gyms in them. You can’t yell at your boss for being a jerk, but you can go to that kickboxing class. You can’t sleep because of the stresses of the day, but wearing yourself out to the point of exhaustion does do the trick.

So where is exercise’s proper place? Cue James Parker’s review of Alison Bechdel’s new memoir The Secret to Superhuman Strength in the Atlantic, in which he likens her physical journey to a spiritual one. Bechdel’s goal is much more dignified than wanting a toned beach body. She worked on her abs as a means of working on her soul. Parker’s responds with a heavy rejoinder —  fitness is an unwinnable sport:

Self-forgetting, self-improvement — and self-regulation. Bechdel’s story, as she tells it in The Secret to Superhuman Strength, also contains a lot of what in my own life I call “buzz management.” Which is to say, the husbandry and distribution of one’s personal energies: knowing when to stimulate, when to tranquilize, when to run up a mountain and boil your shitty mood in endorphins, and so on. And the thing about buzz management is that you’re always getting it wrong. You overexcite yourself; you frazzle yourself; you’re bored, and then you’re anxious, and then you’re tired. There’s some surfeit or deficit of electricity, some kink in the wiring, that you’re always trying to straighten out. In Bechdel I recognize the symptoms of a fellow buzz manager: a tricky relationship to alcohol, a tricky relationship to work, a tricky relationship to relationships. I’m 53, and my exercise regimen — push-ups, pull-ups, jumping rope — is basically a means of helping me digest the consequences of my personality.

It’s a delightful take on exercise to say the least, partially because Parker doesn’t see fitness as a means to an end but simply as a coping mechanism for being human. Whereas health and wellness are two ways we often think we can get to (or, perhaps, avoid) God, Parker understands physical exercise as a way of simply managing. Moving his body helps him understand his own limitations in a way that little else can. Push-ups, pull-ups and jumping rope don’t increase his strength as much as they reveal his weakness.

Exercise might manage one’s disease but it doesn’t cure it altogether. The morning run might get you out of bed, but why was it so difficult to get up in the first place? The post-workout euphoria may quiet the mind, but it doesn’t banish the anxiety.

The #livefit saints of Instagram may dazzle the eye, but Jesus came not for the healthy but for the sick. God has no use for your six-pack abs or biceps. He wants whatever made exercise so desperately necessary in the first place. Being in the business of mending things, He is only interested in that which is broken. That’s the Gospel message that connects with hurting people — marathon runners and couch potatoes alike.

The Apostle Paul doesn’t negate fitness altogether; he just thinks its a nice thing to do. “For, while physical training is of some value,” he writes, “godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come” (1 Tim 4:8).  Fitness has its benefits, but it’s not life-changing. Death still comes for even the most devoted of exercise worshippers. Here, an eternal landscape can inform an earthly one. Your morning routine might help you unmuddle your mind for the day ahead, but we’re all one blown ACL away from finding other coping mechanisms.

As it does to every other law, the Gospel defangs the life-and-death law of exercise. In Christ, God not only joined the race but dressed up in a mascot suit, making those straining so hard toward the goal look more than a bit foolish. He then laid out a stretcher at the Mile Two marker for those who overexerted themselves, thinking they were stronger than they actually were. In Christ, not only does God renew our strength, but His own strength is made perfect in our weakness. While our bodies may be in disrepair, our trust can be in the One who is in the business of raising dead people, again and again and again. Perhaps that bit of Gospel truth is the thing that will get me out of bed in the morning.