There are wrong motivations for staying in shape. Vanity, narcissism and insecurities are the big ones driving thousands to sign-up in droves for gym memberships and stock up on supplements and powders. Sadly, secular culture promotes fitness for many of these reasons. The body becomes an idol, and various workout and diet regiments serve as “sacraments” for the summum bonum of physical perfection. There’s clearly an attempt to avoid the inevitable: aging and, eventually, death. But no matter how much we lift, how far we run, how much kale we throw into our smoothies, we can’t escape nature. One of the consequences of removing God from our lives is a rush to find ways to live forever (or as close to it as possible) because death, to a secularist, is not a beginning but annihilation. Poof! Gone.

But taken in the correct context, exercise, eating healthy food and staying in shape are great goals! Caring for God’s gift of life through discipline and healthy choices is noble. Intense exercise is hard. There’s no silver bullet. But, like the virtuous life, it pays off in the long run and gets easier by the day. And it doesn’t even have to take a lot of expensive equipment.

About eight years ago, living in Saint Louis, I ordered a basic pull-up bar on Amazon. I didn’t know anyone in the city and so I thought, “Why not spend my (ample) solitary free time here in a constructive way and start working out?” The bar soon arrived, and I hung it in my bedroom doorframe. As the months rolled along, I kept a record of how many pull-ups and sit-ups I did each day, in addition to frequent jogs in the Central West End. I would strive to crank out more pull-ups and sit-ups than the previous week. Sheets of paper were soon filled with lines and slashes signifying the total number of pull-up reps I did per day. Then, at the recommendation of an out-of-state friend, I tried P90X. That was intense, to say the least. But it brought my fitness to a new level. P90X combines various forms of fast-paced plyometric workouts with weight lifting, as well as push-ups and pull-ups. I still didn’t know a lot of people in the city, so working out became something of a minor obsession that occupied my free time. And it was fun, something to do in the evenings, in addition to reading. (“Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body”, observed Joseph Addison.)

2016-02-28 19.51.09Eventually, I made a few friends. One was in very good shape and belonged to a gym in the neighborhood. I decided to tag along to see what the gym was like. I had never before set foot in a gym, mind you, so this was a completely new experience for me. But it was a positive one and signaled a new phase in my fitness journey. The encouragement and friendly competition between us was very helpful and produced better results. Truth be told, he was a few steps ahead of me, so I probably benefited more from the partnership and challenge. It wasn’t long before I signed up, and began jogging (rain or shine) the two miles from home to the gym every single day to workout. Back in Milwaukee, I’ve stuck with the routine, although I’ve pulled back to five days per week.

I agree with those who say that dedication to exercise teaches valuable lessons.

  • Structure: Making a gym visit (or time at home for exercise) a regular, fixed part of my day helps provide order to the rest of my life. I see it as something I have to do, period. I don’t like the idea of drifting through the little free time I have, or not having things planned out, so penciling in an hour after work for the gym helps fill the afternoon. It orders part of the day and also gives me something to look forward to when I leave work.
  • Body-Soul: Throughout the day, I operate at a higher level as a result of frequent exercise. After a stressful day at work, giving the body time to sweat and release energy is a great counterbalance. As a result of working out, my mind is more alert. The body is a gift from God, a temple of the Holy Spirit, and deserves to be taken care of. Being in shape and eating a good diet says that you care about what God has given you.
  • Discipline the body and mind: Sometimes, I really don’t feel like working out. I’m tired, or feeling just plain lazy. The easy route is to head straight home. In the winter, it’s cold and gets dark out very early, making gym treks all the less appealing, and at a time in the day when I’m already worn out. But it’s precisely at those times that I summon the willpower, shake off the lethargy and grind it out. After, it feels really good. I know that I’ve overcome idleness.
  • Set (and stick to) small, reasonable goals: Live in the present. What can I do today? I try not to think about sticking to (or dropping) my routine somewhere down the road, and instead focus on what I need to do today. Then, I will repeat the same thing tomorrow. Before I know it, the days turn to weeks, which turn to months, which turn to years, and I find that I succeed in my goal of staying with it.

Of course, people’s schedules and lives are different, and you can only do so much, depending on your state in life. But it can be pretty simple to work in a little bit of time for exercise each day. It can all start with a basic pull-up bar and some sheets of paper to keep track of progress.