Fatty Saunders. That’s what they called me at school. I even had my own theme song. ‘Four foot wide, four foot tall, eating chips, no friends at all.’ They were no halcyon days, but I’m sure they were the making of me. And they were certainly of my own making.
Raised at the captain’s table (Birds Eye, that is), I supplemented a high-fat diet with secret chocolate and carbohydrate addictions and, crucially, an aversion to exercise that bordered on allergy. I never ran anywhere (unless the ice cream van came calling); the one highlight of my team sport career was a 30 yard lung-bursting run in a game of rugby that led to me scoring a try. At the wrong end. I was as hapless as I was disinterested.
When it comes to exercise, much of the UK population seems to sprint or waddle towards two polarised camps. Those who would rather stick pins in their eyes than go for a run, and those the group that called me fat might derogatorily describe as ‘fitness freaks’. These are the people who wear unreasonably tight Lycra, use iPhone apps to bore everyone senseless with their latest running distance, and watch cycling on the TV for pleasure.
Common sense would suggest there’s probably a healthier third way. So why do so many of us tend towards one of those two extremes ? and is there a role for the Church to play in tending to people’s physical as well as spiritual health?
Too much of a bad thing
Britain is facing what tabloids and medical professionals alike are calling an ‘obesity crisis’. Adult obesity rates have quadrupled in the last 25 years, with 23.1% of over 18s now classified as obese (not just overweight), according to the latest research by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Experts argue that the key factor in this is increased consumption of cheap, sugary and high-fat foods, but a convenience-based, less active lifestyle is another significant cause. A study recently released by Stanford University suggested that obesity isn’t determined by genetics or childhood weight problems; in most cases, our fitness is in our own hands.
It's been said that gyms are the new churches; perhaps churches could become the new gyms?
Look at the average church, and you’ll find plenty of congregants (and leaders) who look as if they’re smuggling a pillow into the service ? people who feel justified in casting judgement on homosexuals and divorcees while being unrepentant, out and proud gluttons. In fact, gluttony seems to be the sin we hear least about from the pulpit; perhaps because so few of us feel like we have a right to cast the first scone ? sorry, stone. Yet our bodies are, according to that oft-quoted verse from 1 Corinthians, temples of the Holy Spirit. Paul tells us to honour them.
So many churches have an activity programme ? men’s ministry events being the worst offenders ? based around eating fattening stuff together. Some churches hand out doughnuts, home groups have regular curry nights. We have a comprehensivetheology of food: Jesus had some of his most profound conversations around a meal table; our central act of worship involves eating and drinking. Should we have a better theology of physical well-being?
Too much of a good thing
In the other camp (let’s call it boot camp), millions of super-fit Brits are devoting a mammoth portion of their time, and income, to the £3.8bn fitness industry. These aren’t the people who might occasionally attempt a jog in a 20-year-old pair of Dunlop Green Flash; they’re the nutters you see doing press-ups in netball vests at eight o’clock on a Saturday morning, willingly submitting to some sort of faux drill sergeant among the dog poo in your local park.
British Military Fitness (or BMF as it’s known to devotees) is just one of countless exercise opportunities available to the discerning self-flagellator. Others include Zumba classes (high intensity aerobics with a higher price and a cooler name), Circus Fit (lots of trapeze work, no lions), and Pogo Workout (self-explanatory). Best/weirdest of all is Anti-Gravity Yoga, which sees participants strap themselves upside down into slings, then attempt muscle-crunching moves.
High intensity programmes like these demand commitment and devotion, but for many they can encourage unhealthy traits including addiction and even idolatry. Paul told us our bodies were temples, remember, not idols (insert joke about golden calves here). When we become too focused on obtaining that chiselled six-pack, we can inadvertently stumble across that line that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 6:12: ‘I will not be mastered by anything.’
In 1 Timothy 4:8, Paul writes that ‘physical training is of some value’. Different readers interpret the word ‘some’ in very different ways. For one scholar, it’s stressed to emphasise its relative unimportance when compared to godliness. For another, it’s more generously understated; a recognition that keeping fit is a positive and important thing in its own right. I tend towards the second interpretation.
Beyond making sure the temple is in good working order, keeping fit is a great way to practice self-discipline, which then translates to other areas of life. If you’re able to remain consistent in your diet and exercise, it follows that you’ll be able to show and maintain discipline in your devotional life. It also creates opportunities for delayed gratification, perseverance, and even (gasp) suffering: all positive and faith-building steps in the Christian journey.
British Missional Fitness
I’ve finally moved beyond those playground taunts; my height now considerably exceeds my width. More than that, recent experience has taught me that the continued national interest in fitness activities can create powerful opportunities for mission. Irecently undertook a day-long sponsored walking challenge with around 50 other men, many of whom weren’t believers. As we walked we laughed and told stories; we winced in pain together as the end drew near; we celebrated like a family at the end. That day created the most numerous and natural opportunities for evangelism I can remember. We were forced beyond superficiality with one another. The pain and the struggle forced us to be vulnerable; the difficulty and perseverance forced us together as a team.
Thinking more widely, then, are there significant mission opportunities in this area? Not just sponsored challenges, but in the ongoing life of your church? Could you run fitness classes? A squash ladder? A five-a-side football or netball team? Not only do these create safe environments for people to invite their friends into a ‘church’ context, they also meet a natural demand in your community for these activities. After all, it’s been said that gyms are the new churches; perhaps churches could become the new gyms?
We tend towards extremes in health and fitness, perhaps because of the lure of marketing forces on either side. True discipline means ignoring the promises of what a ‘perfect body’ can offer, and ignoring the rumbling stomach. We will not be mastered byanything. Instead, let’s aim for a lifestyle in balance, which recognises the importance of a healthy body as well as a healthy soul.