On Faith and Fitness

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Faith-and-Fitness

Glutes and godliness. Biceps and the Bible. On first view, fitness and faith may seem a strange match. But for many people, spiritual motivations bring deeper meaning to their health and fitness pursuits, and prove to be a positive, pivotal factor in supporting them.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, in a bustling park just north of downtown Los Angeles, 10 fitness enthusiasts assembled for their weekly workout. They bantered about the upcoming 5K, discussed their strength and flexibility goals, and swapped healthy diet ideas.

Then the group’s instructor, a fit 34-year-old named Justin Carter, interrupted the din, calling his charges into a circle. “Let’s pray,” he said. The group of 20- to 50-year-old professionals, of all shapes and sizes, bowed their heads as Carter led them in a short benediction.

“Amen!” the group responded in closing before taking off on a three-and-a-half-mile mobile workout — some running, others power walking, all of them brimming with confidence and enthusiasm.

Carter’s group is a small branch of The Daniel Plan, a nationwide healthy-living initiative created by Rick Warren, senior pastor at Saddleback Church. Warren wanted to inspire his largely out-of-shape congregation to shift their unhealthy habits.

To launch the plan in 2011, the Christian pastor formed a partnership with three physicians: Mark Hyman, MD, a functional-medicine specialist; Mehmet Oz, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon; and Daniel Amen, MD, a lauded psychiatrist.

The plan, which combines health and fitness with prayer, scripture, spiritual inspiration, and group support, has been remarkably successful. “In our first year, we had more than 15,000 people sign up,” says Dee Eastman, The Daniel Plan’s national director. “Collectively, they lost over a quarter of a million pounds.”

They’re not alone. Throughout North America and across many faiths, people are embracing the combination of body and spirit.

In Annandale, Va., Pastor Steven Reynolds inspires his parishioners to get healthy with Christian-themed fitness principles outlined in his book Bod4God: The Four Keys to Weight Loss. In New York City, fitness retreats combine Jewish teachings with yoga and Pilates. Online, websites like www.islamicfitness.com provide the global Muslim community with health and wellness strategies appropriate to their faith.

And for people who prefer an agnostic approach, mind-body centers, yoga studios, and companies like SoulCycle, which boasts more than 40 studios nationwide, are catering to the population’s burgeoning interest in a spiritually centered (but not necessarily religion-based) approach to health and fitness.

For many people, faith and healthy living go together naturally, each -providing support and inspiration for the other. Centuries of religious practices, rituals, and rules related to health, wellness, exercise, and diet back this idea, as do many branches of modern science.

The consensus: Spiritual beliefs may be among the most powerful — yet often overlooked — drivers of healthy behavior change that an individual or community can tap into.

Ancient Origins

At first glance, fitness and faith may seem an awkward pairing: Glutes and godliness. Biceps and the Bible. The temporal and the eternal.

But, in fact, the roots of the modern faith-fitness trend extend back to some of history’s most seminal spiritual texts, which suggest that taking care of the body has always been considered a profoundly important sacred duty — a way of honoring and serving a higher power.

Perhaps the best-recognized passage appears in 1 Corinthians in the New Testament: Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit . . . therefore honor God with your body.

“The ‘temple’ verse was often quoted as an injunction against smoking and drinking,” says religious historian Randall Balmer, PhD, MDiv, of Dartmouth College. But it also conveys a bigger idea: Our bodies are sacred vessels “on loan” from a higher power, and not ours to abuse or ignore.

Many Jewish tenets hold movement, fitness, and strength in similarly high regard. There’s long been an association of Judaism with “scholarly, sedentary” pastimes, writes Fred Rosner, MD, an expert in Jewish medical history and medical ethics. But “traditional Jewish sources of several eras portray involvement in a broad spectrum of exercise activities.”

In the Torah, for example, a Jewish sage writes that one should be “strong as a leopard, light as an eagle, fleet as a hart, and brave as a lion to perform the will of thy Father who is in heaven.” Proper religious conduct isn’t just quietly devotional, he suggests — it’s also downright athletic.

Summing up the Muslim take on fitness, Omar Hasan Kasule, MPH, DrPH, a professor of epidemiology and Islamic medicine at Universiti Brunei Darussalam, writes, “Physical activity is mustahabb” — a virtuous, or recommended, action — “for its physiological and health benefits.”

Far from being wholly separate disciplines, spirituality and exercise have long been closely intertwined — perhaps since the birth of faith itself.

The takeaway from these ancient scriptures? The body is more than an earth-bound container for the soul. It’s an essential piece of the human puzzle, an instrument through which we can honor the will of a higher power — or simply express our devotion to a higher ideal.

Science of the Spirit

Leaving aside the vexing question of whether or not God exists, science has shown that spiritual beliefs (of any kind) are unquestionably good for you, bolstering your commitment to healthy living and lending your workouts a greater sense of purpose.

Research has found, for example, that people who participate in religious activities are more likely to consume fruits and vegetables, less likely to abuse addictive substances, and less likely to commit suicide than people with no religious affiliation.

A 2002 study concluded that “religious involvement is associated . . . with better physical health, better mental health, and longer survival.”

“Science is now legitimizing what people have known for thousands of years: We are more than our bodies, and true health is attending to all parts of our being — including our spirit,” says psychologist Michelle Pearce, PhD, of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

One reason spirituality may be so closely linked to good health is that it’s a powerful source of intrinsic motivation, which many psychologists believe is uniquely effective in helping people adopt and maintain healthy habits.

“Intrinsic motivation means you’re motivated by an internal desire to participate in an activity for its own sake,” explains executive coach Kate Larsen, MCC, CWC, author of Progress Not Perfection, “because it gives you a sense of meaning, autonomy, and pride.”

Unlike extrinsic motivation, in which a person is driven by desire to gain an external reward or to avoid some punishment, intrinsic motivation comes from within and is connected with our most deeply held values. As a result, intrinsic values motivate us more powerfully and sustainably over time.

For this reason, Larsen encourages health-seeking clients who have strong spiritual beliefs or practices to make a connection between their spiritual and physical values. “Spirituality isn’t just from the neck up,” she tells them. “We’re bodies that contain spirits.”

Even people who begin an exercise program for more practical reasons often find that spirituality becomes the primary driver for their physical pursuits: A 2014 study from the Journal of Health Psychology found, for example, that even when people initially take up a yoga practice for exercise and stress relief, very often “spirituality becomes their primary reason for maintaining practice.”

Strength in Numbers

Get-Healthier-Together

One of the biggest motivational advantages to approaching a fitness program as a spiritual practice is that it connects you with others who support your efforts to optimize your health.

At first, the “other” may simply be God or a higher power — and for many people, that may be enough. According to Pearce, the spiritual perspective provides “an extra layer of accountability” in much the same way a trainer or workout buddy can. But its benefits extend beyond that.

“Surrendering yourself and your goal to a higher power, and asking for God’s help, can paradoxically result in your feeling more capable of reaching that goal,” she says.

This powerful combination of accountability and autonomy is further compounded when spiritually inclined people gather to make health a group effort.

“People who do The Daniel Plan with a partner double their weight loss,” says Amen, a psychiatrist and brain specialist. He says this is one reason why he and Daniel Plan coauthors Warren, Oz, and Hyman made “Friends” one of the five “Essentials” that form the plan’s core principles (the others are Focus, Fitness, Faith, and Food — below for more on each of these).

In less overtly religious groups, communal energy may take on near-sacred significance and can serve a similar function to the higher power that inspires the more religiously inclined.

SoulCycle’s group cycling classes are spiritually infused but nondenominational, and students ride in close packs to feed off each other’s energy. Prospective instructors have to pass a rigorous audition process in which their ability to uplift and inspire -students with “soulful” words is far more important than sporting a six-pack or a trophy case of race medals.

People get sick — or better — together.

Because they call on the best in us and connect us in circles of shared values, spiritually bonded communities may have a real advantage in shifting previously entrenched behaviors.

According to The Daniel Plan’s Eastman, “Pastor Rick started the Plan because he realized that so many of us were overweight — and he was, too.” When he began encouraging his congregation to join him in a healthy-transformation effort, the close-knit church provided an ideal environment for a communal health overhaul.

“People get sick — or better — together,” says Amen.

Hyman agrees: “Getting healthy is a team sport.” When people struggle to get fit, he observes, “it’s not that they don’t want to change. It’s that they don’t have the support — the love factor — that actually helps them change.”

Spanning the Spiritual Spectrum

To some people, faith and religion may seem like anachronisms — antiquated concepts with little bearing on our contemporary worldview. But for the overwhelming majority of us, devout and nondevout alike, spiritual beliefs remain powerful, life-shaping forces.

A 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 92 percent of Americans believe in God or a universal spirit, including 70 percent of people who have no official religious affiliation.

At the same time, however, there is wide agreement that no single religion has cornered the market on the truth: 70 percent of religious Americans agree that “many religions can lead to eternal life” and 68 percent agree that “there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of my religion.”

Religiously speaking, this survey indicates that Americans are, for the most part, both diverse and tolerant.

It’s not surprising, then, that there’s a considerable range in the way that spiritual beliefs inform physical health and fitness practices throughout the United States.

In an overtly Christian ministry like Reynolds’s, members memorize and recite relevant passages from the Bible and endeavor to follow what they believe to be Christ’s word in their choices around exercise and diet.

At the other end of the spectrum are fitness classes where teachers infuse exercise sessions with a spiritual flavor while avoiding explicit references to religion.

Iyengar yoga teacher Matthew Sanford is author of Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence and founder of Mind Body Solutions, a nonprofit dedicated to “transforming trauma, loss, and disability into hope and potential.” Sanford, who is paralyzed from the chest down, believes that a mind-body-spirit approach to health can enhance the spiritual journey of any student, regardless of his or her religious affiliation.

“I don’t explicitly try to bring a particular view of spirituality or religion into what I’m teaching,” Sanford says. “But I definitely want to ignite a sense of wonder and awe about the beauty of being alive.”

For Reynolds, God inspires movement; for Sanford, movement inspires a gratitude that verges on the spiritual. But for all faith-fitness practitioners, from the devout to the agnostic, the relationship between the physical and the spiritual is symbiotic.

Just as spiritual practices like studying inspiring texts and connecting with like-minded groups can encourage us to take better care of our bodies, physical movement has the power to invigorate and uplift our spirits.

“When you maintain your body with care, you’re more gracious, patient, loving, and clearheaded,” says Larsen. “You’re not as impulsive. Stress is reduced. Cognition improves.”

Larsen points out that a wide variety of beneficial and feel-good neurochemicals are produced during exercise, including brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) — a molecule that enhances memory and learning.

More focus, better alignment, less mental noise, and an openness to learning all create a state that Larsen believes is more in line with our intended, spiritual path. Religious or not, she says, “my clients immediately see the connection between smart self-care and their ability to show up as the person they want to be.”

Larsen believes that different forms of exercise even have the power to invoke specific spiritual lessons. During cardio training, she says, an exerciser embodies the “servant’s heart”: kind, humble, always ready to serve others. Similarly, flexibility work calls forth a capacity for forgiveness, and strength training can be a metaphor for remaining steadfast through life’s trials.

For many, yoga asanas, or postures, carry similar associations. The yoga sun salutation, for example, is a hip-opening, breath-deepening form of exercise, but it can also be a form of wordless prayer. Like a devout Muslim’s salat, the sun salutation is worship and workout, a way of moving the body to move the soul.

Perhaps the most resonant feature of the faith-fitness connection is its capacity to bring meaning to movement, to locate good health and self-care practices in a larger and deeper life context.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with exercising and eating healthfully simply to look better, to feel better, or to perform better in everyday life. But for many, connecting healthy choices to spiritual values may provide both the meaning and the motivation required to make those changes stick.

Take Chris Wilcox, a Washington, D.C. area banker who once weighed 500 pounds. Even extreme interventions, including medically monitored diets and a gastric bypass, failed him. “Nothing worked,” he says.

In 2013 he turned to a local healthy-living ministry that helped him find the tools, motivation, and support to swap unhealthy habits for better ones. Two years later, he’s down to a fit 240 pounds.

Wilcox credits his faith with giving him the strength to do what he couldn’t accomplish alone. “When you can rely on a power that’s bigger than you, you feel like you can do anything.”

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The Faith and Fitness Debate

When Pastor Steven Reynolds, author of Bod4God: The Four Keys to Weight Loss, first began preaching about diet and exercise, he had no idea how he would be received: “No one minds if I preach about private behavior like alcohol use,” he says. “But they get uncomfortable when I preach about obesity, because everyone can look around and see exactly who I’m talking to.”

Reynolds overcame his initial misgivings, however, knowing that much of his congregation had witnessed his own struggles with weight over 33 years. “Those people had seen me grow and shrink,” he says. And overwhelmingly, the response at his church — and nationwide — has been positive.

Still, addressing fitness and weight loss in a religious setting can give the topic a moral heft, an association some people — who may be overweight through no fault of their own — may find objectionable. And some research indicates that this approach may have unintended consequences: One 2010 study concluded that stigmatization of obese men and women “threatens health . . . and interferes with effective obesity intervention efforts.”

In certain settings, some people have argued that fitness and religion should remain separate for legal reasons.

In 2013, attorneys for the National Center for Law & Policy, a Christian group, filed suit against a school district in Encinitas, Calif., for teaching yoga to elementary school kids. The reason? Yoga was “inherently and pervasively religious,” and therefore had no place in public schools. Though the plaintiffs lost on the grounds that the classes were secular in nature, the suit made clear that a vocal minority, at least, is uncomfortable with the convergence of spirituality and fitness — especially in an exercise class for school kids.

From the establishment of Cartesian Dualism (which divided church and science in 1641), through the penning of the First Amendment (which erected a wall of separation between church and state in the United States a century later), the body and the soul have long remained officially separate in this country.

Unofficially, though, the wall is showing some cracks. In addition to the growing fitness trend uniting physical and spiritual wellness, the healthcare industry has begun to recognize that better health outcomes result when you treat the whole person — body and mind — as one.

Psychologist Michelle Pearce, PhD, of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, asserts that “We are moving back to a more holistic view of health and healing, where health is not just about how our bodies are functioning, but how our bodies, minds, and spirits are functioning.”

Still, resistance to this unified conception of body and soul remains, even amid the calm of a yoga class. “When you open your chest, you appreciate life more,” says yoga instructor Matthew Sanford, author of Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence.

The sensation is real, but some students, Sanford has found, don’t want to feel it: “They push and pull so hard that they can’t access that lightness in the mind-body connection.”

And that’s OK, he says. Sometimes you don’t want holistic healing and yoga; sometimes you just want an aspirin or 20 minutes on a stationary bike. But the connection is still there for you whenever you choose to acknowledge it — whether that’s through prayers, Hallelujahs, deep breaths, or downward dogs.

Andrew Heffernan, CSCS, GCFP, is an Experience Life contributing editor.