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Run For It

Conversations with a few friends over the last little while have got me toying with the idea of attempting a half-marathon later this year. I have taken a few halting steps (literally and metaphorically) towards this goal in the last few days, but it remains to be seen if these will be sustained. It’s not hard to jog for a few kilometres in the midst of what has been a glorious Alberta summer, but when the cold and the wind make their inevitable appearance? Well, let’s just say that my resolve will likely face a more formidable test.

Whatever may happen with the half-marathon plans, it’s good to at least think about being more active (I’m actually quite good at the “thinking about it” part…). And as I think about if/how/when more regular exercise might become a part of my life, I find myself paying more attention to the exercise habits of those around me. Exercise is quite cool, I am discovering. You get to wear expensive, form-fitting, high-tech clothing and footwear. You get to be a part of an elite group, that talks about races and diets and performance enhancing gadgetry. And to top it all off, you get to enjoy feeling just a bit superior to the unwashed masses who don’t take care of their bodies like you do.

A harsh evaluation? Probably. But there is little doubt that a form of health-mania has taken over in many parts of the western world. Much of this is good and worthy of affirmation. It’s good to understand our bodies, what is good for us, and to take steps to live healthier lives. It’s good to take preventative steps to prevent disease and decay as we age. It’s good to do things that push ourselves physically in a culture where almost everything is designed around our ease and comfort.

But amidst all of this healthy goodness, I wonder if heath and fitness has become something of an object of worship and devotion in a culture that finds itself increasingly in need of something to worship in the absence of God. Others wonder about this, too, as evidenced in this article by Mark Edmundson over at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Edmundson argues that in the absence of any kind of meaningful horizon toward which to orient ourselves, simply keeping ourselves alive for as long as possible has taken over as the goal of our frenetic physical activity. It’s a provocative article worth reading in its entirety, but a few passages stood out to me:

Health should manifest itself as a means to an end. We want to be healthy so we can get something practical done—or better still, something divine, something celestial. But now, since we do not know what we are doing here, do not know what we want or need, health has become an end in itself. People pursue health for its own sake. Why do you want to live? we ask the compulsive exerciser. The answer is not So that I can finish the work; so that I can make the discovery; so that I can find enduring love. The answer now—implicit, but to me, alas, unmistakable—is that I want to live simply to go on living. With the disappearance of tenable ideals, life, simple life, has become the great goal….

All of the energy that once went into the pursuit of the ideal is now dormant, for almost no one can believe in ideals anymore. A quest for artistic perfection? Absurd. A search for true and absolute knowledge? A joke. A life’s dedication to compassion and lovingkindness? You must be kidding. So what is to be done with the power of human will that might once have sought after these things? It is redirected to more quotidian business. People now pursue a means—staying alive—as though it were an end in itself. Epic measures of energy invest a rank banality, for in truth there is no sustaining meaning to be had, no triumph to be achieved, simply in the maintenance of biological life.

Edmundson closes his article by pointing out the double-edged nature of our dilemma. There seem to be two dominant responses in a world where it seems like there is no meaning to be had. One is the exercise/health-mania already alluded to. The other, is an enthusiastic and uncritical embrace of instant gratification. If it feels (or tastes) good, do (or eat) it. All we have is the moment and whatever pleasures can be extracted from it. So eat, drink, and be merry for… well, you know the rest. According to Edmundson, it’s not hard to see the results of this latter approach in a society characterized by addictions to food, entertainment, and pleasure, with all of the attendant physical and behavioural problems this spawns.

So we have addiction to exercise and addiction to cheap and easy pleasure. Two ends on a spectrum of responses to the question of what (if anything) our bodies are for and what we should do with them in a culture devoid of ultimate purpose.

Of course, from a Christian perspective, the most sensible thing to do is to thoughtfully reintroduce a horizon of meaning within which to think about these matters. A robust Christian anthropology can move us beyond the bare pragmatism of exercising just to keep ourselves kicking about the planet for as long as possible, to a place where we can see taking care of our bodies as an act of good stewardship borne out of the conviction that we are accountable to our Maker for what we have been given. This anthropology can also move us beyond greedily hoarding what pleasures come our way to a position of joyful acceptance of God’s gifts in the moderation and gratitude that leads to health.

In both cases, the horizon is the same: Human bodies, like everything else in God’s created world, have a destiny beyond the years that we spend here, and will find their way into the new creation that God has promised to bring about—the new creation that all of our activities here, whether physical, intellectual, spiritual, or relational, are preparing us for, either positively or negatively. It is a good and hopeful horizon, I think—one that can either justify the “epic measures of energy” we are already investing, or motivate us to pick up the pace.

31 Comments Post a comment
  1. Excellent post. It made me remember a comment from Kenneth Mottram, in his book Caring For Those In Crisis. (He is a chaplain.) He said that the contemporary equivalent of the medieval cathedral is the modern medical center, that sprawling towering collection of buildings devoted to health. The vast cultural resources that once flowed toward building a cathedral now go toward the facilities that foster our physical health. When I travel up to Ann Arbor to visit a parishioner at the University of Michigan Hospital, which can be seen from miles away, I think about how I am visiting the cathedral. I suppose that makes physicians the high priests.

    August 16, 2011
    • It’s a very interesting analogy… I think it’s good and appropriate that cultural resources are devoted to physical health, but the size and the scope of many hospitals certainly gives a window into what a culture values most highly doesn’t it? I was in Calgary, AB last week where they are building a massive new hospital in the south end. Now, every time I drive by it I will be thinking about cathedrals and priests

      August 16, 2011
  2. If I were desperately sick, I’d want to go to a towering health cathedral. Very grateful for modern medicine. Only, when you look at the resources that go into health care, it says a lot about what we value as a culture. Which is the point of your post. We have no horizon beyond health. As I look around, even in churches, the main goal in life seems to be (a) to stay healthy; and (b) to enjoy a comfortable retirement. And truth be told, deep down those are probably my goals too. I have to remind myself that as a Christian I am to aim for something more.

    August 17, 2011
    • I find myself in need of similar reminders, Chris… My horizons can too often be more limited than they ought to be, as a follower of Jesus.

      August 17, 2011
  3. LarryS #

    So lets see Ryan, you move to flat country then decide to take up running. Of course in Lethbridge you could be running against a good head wind – so would have extra resistance 🙂

    I am certainly not a 1/2 marathon runner – but have been running for a number of years. Due to knee issues (can’t take pounding), i use a tread-mill and have the added benefit of if I stop in the middle of a run I am already at home.

    Due to injuring myself at a cattle-branding in Gem (threw my neck out being part of a team holding down big calves – I also did a header off a motorcycle) I have taken up resistance training on top of running. I need to keep the body strong.

    I find ‘seasons of life’ are a huge impact on any form of excercise program. Being an ’empty nester’ makes it way easier to carve out time for both running/wieghts ect.

    The busyness of pastoral life coupled with children and a marriage may make keeping to your program difficult. I’d truly encourage you to keep on. And buy good shoes …. makes a lot of difference.

    blessings – don’t let church work busyness keep you from running. pray while you are running and you can tell your parishoners you are still on the clock.

    August 17, 2011
    • Let’s just say that I am at stage in my fitness development where I don’t need any external resistance (like hills or wind :)).

      Thanks for the encouragement, though. I have done enough starts and stops when it comes to exercise regimens to know that I’m at a stage in life that makes it tough. Not impossible, but certainly tough. I may settle for smaller goals—perhaps a 10K for starters would be good.

      Pray while running, eh? Sounds like a good idea… Of course, if you count praying that I survive the next half hour or so, I’m already doing that :).

      August 18, 2011
  4. If the hospitals are the cathedrals, and the physicians are the high priests, then the operating room is the holy of holies where no unwashed person can enter :p

    August 17, 2011
  5. My biggest concern with the whole exercise phenomena are the acticivities themselves. It seems inherently wrong to me that, otherwise non productive work, can occupy so much of our time and energy. I wonder if all the man hours of labour expended in our gyms was put to some sort of co-ordinated use to improve the lives of others, what we might accomplish.

    Somehow the image of a man purposefully exhausting himself to ride a stationary bycicle, inspires neither confidence in the man or the activity.

    Perhaps there is an opportunity to create a series of excercises around work that actually benefits beyond the individual concerns of body image and wellness.

    August 18, 2011
  6. Paul, an excellently provocative idea you raise.
    Exercise is the perogative of the rich – but then so is food that is better for your body’s long term welness. This becomes an issue of class and an issue of privilege. The irony is that we can frame such a wasteful activity as the good stewardship of our bodies.
    I lost 140 lbs – does that make me a better person for getting healthier or does it reflect my arrogant wealth that I can waste so much valuable time on the selfish pursuit of exhausting myself?

    August 18, 2011
  7. So if stewardship language is out, how ought we to frame such a “wasteful activity?”

    While I appreciate the sentiment in both Paul’s comment and your response, I wonder if it goes too far… Is non-“productive” physical exercise somehow imperialistic by definition? Should I go and hitch myself up to a plow and pull it around on my dad’s farm to make my exercise more virtuous?

    I’m not trying to be cheeky here, I’m just genuinely wondering how far to extend this logic (while accepting that there is merit to the questions you both raise).

    August 18, 2011
    • I’m not sure if stewardship language is out. I think that this issues points out the subjectivity with which we approach the notion of stewardship. My wife would say that the fact that I lost 140 lbs running in place on a treadmill is definately good stewarship since under her logic I am taking care of my body so that I can take care of her longer (be with her longer, etc). On the other hand, I know that it would seem ridiculously wasteful for me to tell my Nicaraguan friend that spend 1.5 hours a day sweating when he spends every day squeezing every once of energy out of his body before he collapses in bed each night. Perspective frames our sense of what is good stewardship…
      It is far more interesting to contemplate the imperialist accusations that could be levelled on either side of this issue. Productiveness is again a peculiarly subjective paradigm. You hooked up to plow seems distinctly unproductive compared being able to put your better judgement to use in hitching up the John Deere.
      In the end one cannot escape the fact that carving out time, energy and other resources to exercise in order to compensate for our largely gluttonous diet is the privilege of our class position To deny that reality is to miss out one the guilt that might might keep us humble enough about the way we espouse (and exercise) our subjective view of stewardship…

      August 22, 2011
      • So what would a more humble way of talking about and exercising stewardship look like, in your view?

        Or, to put it differently, how do/should you justify your expenditure of effort to your Nicaraguan friend whose physical exertions are, of necessity, inextricably tied to his livelihood?

        (Incidentally, are you suggesting that everyone who exercises in a culture of privilege has a “gluttonous diet?”)

        August 23, 2011
      • I think it might be helpful (and more humble) to talk about exercise in less moralistic ways. Avoiding the idea of stewardship might be a way to start. As a former fat man – I can only assume the moral derth attributed to my person becuase of my obesity. Rightly or wrongly – body image and morality ought to spend less time in each others company. (In this regard the way in which we have sexualized women’s bodies has become another interesting problem.)
        I can say that I am entirely uncomfortable with trying to explain my exercise plan to anyone for whom a naturally active lifestyle is not only possible but necessary.

        August 23, 2011
      • incidently, I am suggesting that our diet is gluttonous. Perhap not in the same way as we might image the Sheriff of Nottingham at one of his banquets. I would say that generally even the carefully honed diet of high performance athlete is gluttonous in the sense that it is a reflection of the ability that is afforded this class of person to consume this type of diet. I am not suggesting that it is wrong – and here I want to be clear that affixing class demarcations is not my attempt to moralize the field. I hope to show that it is necessary for us to recognize how connected our concepts of body image, exercise and diet are connected to class. The problem lies I suggest in the over moralization of this field of study

        August 23, 2011
      • I agree, body image and morality ought to spend less time in one another’s company. I just wonder if you’ve left yourself any room whatsoever for taking care of one’s body in “non-productive” ways to be something good and worthy of affirmation.

        Re: gluttony, my dictionary defines it as “habitual greed or excess in eating.” As I understand the term, it refers to personal decisions, not a descriptor of a class of people with access to a certain amount/variety of resources (which they can choose to use responsibly, or not).

        August 23, 2011
      • fine dictionary nerd
        I guess I am relying on the spirit of the idea of gluttony as excess. I am suggesting that excess exists even in preoccupation with eating a ‘healthy’ diet. This is an excess of selection. In the middle ages monks choose to practice fasting as a way to protest the excesses of the corrupt fuedal lords. Thier fasting took on excessive forms as well – to the point where rib cages were evidence of greater spirituality. This aint-gluttony became a sort of gluttony in itself. Having an over active compulsion to eat only ‘healthy’ food or to count calories may in fact be a similar sort of thing – I am suggesting.

        August 24, 2011
      • by the way my dictionary is the new revised standard dictionary based on the original greek
        what’s yours?
        🙂

        August 24, 2011
      • Just plain old English, I’m afraid…

        August 24, 2011
  8. Well it can go too far….hook yorself up to the plow for a two hour run and let us know when you reach that “too far” moment. 🙂

    But seriously, I too genuinely wonder how to extend the logic. Case in point, a charitable group I know, responsible for the loading and shipping of food containers for overseas shipments always requires men who can comfortably lift grain bags of 40lbs on and off trucks and containers. The gentlman who rents the warehouse space and arranges the shipments has often said it is easier for him to procure food donations than it is to arrange the labour to process the shipments. Would it be ridiculous to approach body builders with the notion that they could lift several hundred 40lb grain bags on a weekly basis, maintain fitness and help address world hunger issues.

    Perhaps an even better question is why the latter example seems less plausible than having the same group of men spend hours a week inside a gym grunting and groaning while lifting weights for no other reason than to increase the size of their bodies.

    August 18, 2011
    • I don’t think your suggestion would be ridiculous at all. The fact that it would likely be dismissed out of hand says more about us and what we value than it does about the idea itself. Your last sentence highlights the inherently self-focused nature of most of our athletic pursuits.

      I wonder, though… Some people, it is rumoured, experience pleasure when jogging, cycling, etc (I do not yet number myself among them). Could this be a good thing? Need all work/activity be “productive?” Can pleasure be a good thing, in and of itself—a gift of God, to be enjoyed and celebrated?

      August 19, 2011
  9. To your last point, yes, yes and yes. Especially the “buzz” component. More than one person I know has had success managing substance abuse issues by exercising regularly. Swapping bad highs for good highs, so to speak.

    It is also true that excercise is essential to health and many of the most giving people in our culture productively utilize excercise in order that they might have sufficient energy to accomplish all that they do. I worked as a caterer/server and events organizer for a well known group of fitness clubs in the downtown Toronto area for over a decade. Part of my stipend allowed me the priviledge of working out in, what were then, state of the art facilities. Exercise in some ways parrallels worship. If your focus begins and ends with yourself the results fall short. If you take a broader view, beginning with yourself but extending your efforts outwards, taking your improved self and sharing that outcome in the service of others, grace prevails.

    I’ve often thought, sadly, that the least valuable outcome of regular exercise, changes in physical appearance, are the ones we are most encouraged to focus on. If the re-energizing of the self, physically, emotionally and spirituallly were the primary goal, outcomes would be different.

    Worse still, this sensibility does prevail in some exercise contexts. The new age expression of Yoga, comes immediately to mind. Though it’s understanding of spirituality is an obvious anathema to Christianity.

    Scripture doesn’t directly address excercise, though St. Paul’s “the body as a temple” discourse does point towards a healthy and active lifestyle as part of the Christian paradigm.

    August 19, 2011
    • Exercise in some ways parrallels worship. If your focus begins and ends with yourself the results fall short. If you take a broader view, beginning with yourself but extending your efforts outwards, taking your improved self and sharing that outcome in the service of others, grace prevails.

      How very true.

      August 19, 2011
  10. Larry S #

    Ryan,

    Don’t be dissuaded or discouraged by the anti-exercise rhetoric! Me thinks there could be couch potatoes amongst your blog posters.:) Yes we can spend too much money, too much time and become body obsessed. Paul’s idea of loading boxes sounds like an interesting idea. (of course, you’d need to be in some sort of shape to be able to do any good – or you could end up injuring yourself throwing boxes around.

    Many of us live in busy, urban areas and have jobs that aren’t physically demanding. The comment that exercise is for the rich sounds elitist leftist. But top marks for rhetoric. 🙂

    Pastors who exercise are bringing honour to God by fighting dualism. They are not allowing the demands of church life to overtake their very bodies. Further, society has a rather dim view of pastors to begin with – seeing them as people who live in their heads – spinning imaginary, useless stories. Getting out – sweating, building some muscle, grinding through pain – will keep a pastor in touch with the real world. (How is that for rhetoric?) Too often pastors allow the time demands of pastoring to chip away at their very bodies.

    And it doesn’t have to cost much. Buy an exercise ball to build core strength. Buy “perfect push-up” bars and begin a regime of daily push-ups, start running a few times a week. Take little steps – set small goals and keep moving. The endorphins are nice too.

    (and now I’m off for a run. Yes it will be on a treadmill but I’ll be listening to Regent Audio lectures I’m hooked on Iain Provan (OT Foundations and his course on Genesis)

    August 19, 2011
    • Thanks for the encouragement, Larry :). I had never really thought of myself as “fighting dualism” or any such things, but boy, my few meagre attempts at exercise sure sound more valourous now!

      (I happen to agree, incidentally, that it’s good for pastors to get out in the “real world.” I visit every opportunity I get :).)

      August 19, 2011
  11. Ken #

    Re: “I wonder, though… Some people, it is rumoured, experience pleasure when jogging, cycling, etc (I do not yet number myself among them). Could this be a good thing? Need all work/activity be “productive?” Can pleasure be a good thing, in and of itself—a gift of God, to be enjoyed and celebrated?”

    I think so. If there is a God, then surely he gave us bicycles and mountains and paths as blessings.

    I don’t exercise now. (It was always boring to exercise.) I hike and bike, and sometimes I just can’t help breaking into a run on the trail or a sprint on a bike. It is pure pleasure and joy. The physical conditioning takes care of itself while just having a great time.

    I think the key to resuming a physical life is to find a physical activity that one enjoys and that is available locally.

    For me, biking produces the most intense joy. But other times, hiking is the only thing that can lift my spirits and give me peace. The running comes like outbursts of gratitude for being alive.

    August 19, 2011
    • Yes, I am very grateful for the blessings of bikes and mountains and trails too, Ken. I spent this afternoon cycling with my kids up and down the coulees and along riverside trails near our home.

      As you say, pure pleasure and joy.

      August 19, 2011
  12. James #

    Interesting discussion! For years I have wondered what kind of energy would be produced if gyms hooked their equipment up to power generating mechanisms. Gyms with their rows of machines always had too much of the feel of slave galleys and salt mines, for my taste.
    All kidding aside, like Ken, I have no pleasure in exercise but I have distinct discomfort when I fail to keep up a regimen of physical activity. Larry and I are the same age [well beyond Ryan 🙂 ] and the pragmatic reasons for a healthy body- begun at an early age are overwhelming. I see this as taking care of my body- God’s temple. Finding pleasant ways of doing this only makes sense.
    Keep running Ryan and biking with your kids is even better.

    August 20, 2011
    • Will do :). Thanks, James.

      August 20, 2011
  13. Shawn #

    JUST DO IT, where have we heard that before? I think you and I have talked alot about being in better shape. I have been biking alot lately, went and played ball hockey as well, feeling good, enjoying exersise for the first time in my life it seems. The balancing of time and what the motivation is can be trickey but I have experianced some amazing moments on the bike lately, I have felt in communion with creation and the Creator, as I peddle along listen to something I like, I can smell the trees, feel the warm air and then cool air, my body seems to be in this rhythm, and I see progress, going faster and farther. I can’t visualize getting that experiance in a gym on a treadmill somehow. Being outside is just more organic and so far I like going out alone, sometime I feel euphoric in the moment. When it comes to fitting it in to family life a try to get something done after work but before dinner. Leaving the evenings free for them. Sounds easy! Yeah right but I do think there is value in it and I can’t wait to hear your post about when you run that 1/2 Marathon. Have you considered Luging, less physical prep and you are close to Calgary but the downside is picking up groceries while you are still in your spandex suit!

    August 24, 2011
    • Couldn’t agree more, Shawn! Well said.

      Re: the half marathon, well, we’ll see… might get downgraded to a 10K. Although luging sounds even more intriguing…. I think spandex would suit me :).

      August 24, 2011

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