If you’ll recall, we’re in a series about the health of the heart, and exploring the sweet spot where the physical heart overlaps with the spiritual heart. One spiritual director has said that “the clearest sign of spiritual maturity is a relaxed nervous system” and Dallas Willard, an author famous for his writings about what it means to follow Christ, expressed that the single adjective that would best describe Jesus would be the word "relaxed" If those statements are true, and I believe they are, then a healthy spiritual outlook will present as a body that is, in its defaule "home screen" mode, at rest. Could it also be true, then, that caring for the health of the physical body so that it’s able to rest well can help our pursuit of spiritual well being?
The “fruit of the spirit” includes peace (my next post will be about the many facets of "peace", such an important longing this advent season), and the central exhortation of the book called Hebrews is that those who follow Christ should be diligent in their pursuit of a space called “rest.” Is this rest a purely internal, spiritual construct, a heavenly bliss of some sort that can happily exist in a body overwhelmed with stress hormones? I don’t think so. I’d suggest God has provided both spiritual and physical tools as ways of dealing with stress, and that the wise disciple commits to using them both! In subsequent posts I’m going to cover the physical and spiritual value of prayer, meditation, and why getting involved in serving our broken world is good for your heart health. In this post, though, I’m going to focus on the physical side and explain why exercise is important for spirit/soul/body wholeness, and how it affects not just our body, but every facet of our being.
A caveat is important here - Anxiety is caused by many things! I'm not suggesting exercise as a cure all because chronic stress/anxiety issues are a combination of psychological, phsyiological, spiritual, and neurological considerations. Always consult your physician when seeking to incorporate exercise into your overall health plan, and work with him/her to determine appropriate medications
We are, as the Bible tells us, “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and a brilliant part of our design is that we have a capacity to respond to stressful situations. There’s a bear just outside your tent? The car in front of you loses a tire and careens across your lane? There’s an earthquake? Your spouse says something hurtful and it’s time to respond? Your boss yells at you?
When these things happen, your body reacts automatically, instinctively going into protective mode. Your heart beats faster in order to push blood to your muscles so that your can either “fight” or “flight” (get out of harm’s way). Your digestion shuts down so all your resources can be attuned to the crisis of the moment. Your blood pressure rises so that more blood, and hence more survival hormones and oxygen to fuel the needed action, get delivered more quickly. You’re now hyper-alert, wired to almost instantly assess the options and make your move which, in the best of circumstances, you do!
And then it’s over. The bear is gone. You avoided the car that lost its tire. You got out of the building and survived the earthquake. You responded to your spouse and gained clarity and understanding, perhaps even closure. When it’s over, you can quickly shake yourself (like your dog does after a conflict), and take a deep breath. Your body returns to it’s “rest and digest” state, which essentially is its default space of “peace,” “rest,” and relaxation.
The problem in this 21st century, is that stress-triggers are no longer short acute events punctuated by longer periods of rest. We’ve created a world of constant stressors. You wake and hurry to both fix and eat your breakfast because its raining and you know your commute time is at risk of being longer (stress). Your commute is longer, forcing you to arrive at work in a harried, unprepared state (stress). Because of this, you beat yourself up when your presentation at a meeting gets pushback from a client (stress). Then you see some people chatting after the meeting and when they see you they stop talking and smile politely (stress). On your way home, NPR offers an interview with Liz Cheney about how democracy is hanging by a thread (stress.) You walk through the door at home and your spouse unloads because their day was also awful, but there’s no time to respond because you have a meal that needs prepping, children that need to be heard and loved, bills to pay, alcohol to drink in order to make it all go smoother (ostensibly, but not really), and then the refrigerator stops working just when you’re opening your mail and learning that your taxes will be going up by about 30%. Stress, stress, stress, stress, stress, stress, stress, stress, and more stress.
There’s no time for “fight or flight” so the stress hormones just keep pouring into your body to gear you up for the response that you’re never able to execute. You’re left with a body chronically on high alert which is both unnatural, unsustainable, and unhealthy. Unless you do something the chronic stress will create ongoing health issues in both mind and body, affecting immune system, digestion, sleep, and emotional health. Thousands of books have been written about this so I won’t go into detail here (This book is one of best to help you understand our stress crisis and the role of exercise in helping manage it.)
For our purposes here, I’ll just note that when your off switch is broken and you remain in stress, you can read the Bible and pray all day but you won't be healthy or whole. You weren’t made for chronic stress. Yes, prayer will help (as I’ll show in a future post), and so will many other things I’ll be speaking of in these posts about heart health. But you’re made by God to remove the “fight or flight” response from your system in one simple way: MOVE YOUR BODY!
The theme of Doctor John Ratey’s book “Spark” is how exercise plays an integral role in brain and emotional health. He shares a story of a woman who was able to overcome an anxiety disorder by spending time every day on an elliptical trainer in her living room. He proved in court, by providing lots of clinical studies about exercise as a stress reliever, that this was as effective as drug treatment for her in addressing her anxiety Another overcame clinical stress by jumping rope several times a day, and in Britain, doctors now (often) use exercise as a first-line treatment for depression.
In our current world where the “fight or flight” stress response assaults us dozens of times a day, there’s often little we can do about it in the moment. You can’t hit your boss, or sprint out of a difficult meeting or traffic jam. Stress inducing demands and events pile on each other and until we engage in the flight or fight response by taking action, the stress hormones which were intended to stay in our body for just a short period, begin to accumulate, damaging our blood vessels, heart, and brain neural pathways.
The beauty of exercise is that it’s a great way of engaging the appropriate stress response. Running, brisk walking, skiing, weight lifting, competitive sport, jumping, kicking, anything you do that burns the glucose in your muscles and gets your heart pumping substantially faster; all these mimic “fight or flight” and so break the stress/anxiety feedback loop in your body. What’s more, exercise releases the tension of your muscles, and your now relaxed body sends a message to the mind: “There’s nothing to fear,” which enables us to end the stress response and move into “rest and digest” mode. Blood pressure and resting heart rate dip, sleep improves, our assessment of reality becomes more realistic. We become more present.
I struggled to write this because I’m a Bible teacher, and I can’t offer you specific verses or theological concepts exhorting us to hit the gym. What I can offer though, is the observation that historically the church has often carried a huge truckload of gnostic thinking into its theology, by which I mean a view that the spirit is more significant than the body. In such a world, prayer is more important than food choices and sitting in church is more important than hiking in creation with a friend. A more holistic view says this: As long as you’re breathing, your faith life is about your spirit, your soul, and your body - neglect any one of them and the others will be damaged as well. Paul the Apostle combatted gnostic thinking in many ways, but one of his most pointed comments was, “So then, whatever you do, whether eating or drinking, do everything to the glory of God.” In this, Paul shows us that our whole self is called to display Christ, and caring for one’s body as God’s temple is no small part of that calling.
The body is the only place that the work of your renewed, Christ-filled, loving, wise, gracious, and powerful spirit is made visible. And it will be less visible whenever the stresses of living in the 21st century overwhelm you and you don’t engage a stress response by exercising somehow. Your blood pressure will rise, your pulse will rise, your fear levels will rise, your capacity for rational thinking will diminish, your patience and capacity to be fully present will diminish. In short, your humanity is diminished when you neglect your body.
“The word became flesh, and we beheld (God’s) glory” is how John 1:14 speaks of Jesus. He showed up and made divine life visible in the midst of eating, drinking, sleeping, fasting, and lots of walking. He was, as Dallas Willard posits, “relaxed”, and invites us as well to peace and rest. Our sedentary lives, it turns out, are no friend of that peace. We’re made to move, and when we do, we’re better able to fulfill our calling of making the invisible God visible.
NOTE: I’m not a medical doctor this is not medical advice. As allows, consult with your physician before beginning an exercise program. My next post in this series will show you how meditation many of these same benefits to your body, while also deepening your sense of identity. Subscribe and you won’t miss it!