As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I think that the most important question in regards to fitness is often neglected. That question is “why?” Why are we seeking to get fit and be healthy? The answer to this question is often skipped over as we race onwards to the most common question: “how?” How do I lose weight, how do I gain muscle, how do I get ripped, how do I prolong my life…the list goes on and on. This is what most fitness resources concentrate on, and disagreement abounds. As Christians, our “why” should be different, and greater, than the world’s “why.” In order to honor God with everything that He has given us, we seek to be good stewards of our bodies. [The Biblical view of “why” we take care of our bodies is discussed in more detail here]. Of course, Christians can also reap the benefits of exercise that often draw most of the attention – living longer and healthier lives (Lord willing), feeling better, and looking fitter. The main focus, however, should be honoring God.
But how do I get fit?
Once we have decided to take the stewardship of our bodies seriously, we still have to answer the “how” question – how are we going to strive towards our fitness goals? This may take some trial-and-error and research; the answer won’t be the same for everyone, but it is worth investigating. If there are legitimately better, more enjoyable, or more efficient ways to increase your fitness, why not pursue them? One problem many of us face is that there is information overload concerning how to increase our fitness. There are countless resources that claim they can reveal hidden fitness secrets and tell you how to get fit fast, lose 10 – 20 – 50 pounds, run a marathon next month, get six-pack abs, and build the physique you’ve always wanted. There can be so much confusion and contradiction between different resources that some people simply give up and conclude that if the experts can’t agree, why bother listening to them? I was hopeful that when I continued my graduate school in the area of exercise and nutrition, all the pesky fitness myths would be dispelled, and I would finally see the one shining “right answer.” What I have found, however, is that there is nearly as much disagreement among leading scientists as there is among the general public. While some myths get debunked, there are still abundant controversies. My current viewpoint on the matter is that many practices that gain popularity can be appropriate for certain people in certain contexts. Low-carb, paleo, crossfit, intermittent fasting, etc. each have some benefits for some people in some contexts. It’s true that there are nutritional or exercise practices should be deemed dangerous or counterproductive, but there are also many practices that can be used successfully. Some of these practices are simple as “eat less food.” Others are much more convoluted and involved. Some are legitimately better, and some are legitimately worse. Ultimately, you should choose whichever tools can safely and effectively help you meet your goals. People are not all identical, and you may see some individuals who find great success with practices that don’t seem to benefit you at all. Arguably the most important factor to consider is whether or not you can maintain a given practice for the long run. Sure, you may experience some quick weight loss from the early stages of an extremely low-carb diet, but can you maintain that diet (and those results) over the long run? Most people can get motivated and make a drastic lifestyle change every so often, but when life gets in the way, they simply can’t maintain their overly restrictive diet and their extreme exercise plan. It is far better to make small changes that you can consistently adhere to. The cumulative effect of these small changes over time will help you reach your fitness goals.
Do I have to?
In terms of exercise, some will tell you that you have to go to the gym three times a week or you have to run if you want to burn fat. This simply isn’t true. You should find the physical activities that you enjoy and that you want to do regularly. For example, if you hate being indoors, you might want to gear your workouts towards activities like biking or running hills. You could even invest in some weights, but use them in the yard instead of the basement. Depending on your goals, it is possible that you will need to branch out, but this doesn’t mean you need to give up the activities you love. For example, let’s say that you have a passion for playing sand volleyball, but you also want to gain some muscle. You won’t likely add significant muscle to your frame just by playing volleyball. You may need to find a compromise between your goals and your passion. You could play volleyball twice a week, but also perform a resistance training circuit twice per week. Some people are very opposed to working out in gyms for a variety of reasons. If you feel this way, there are certainly ways to get in a good workout without going to the gym. Investing in some dumbbells, kettlebells, or other home workout equipment might be a good idea.
I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t care about the “how” of fitness. I do care, and it is something that I will be studying extensively for the next several years in my doctoral program. However, I don’t want anyone to be hindered by confusion about which “how” is best – there are many different options that can work, and your choices should be consistent with your goals and what you find you can maintain in your everyday life. If you find that you are confused or frustrated by the countless diets, exercise plans, and new fads, just remember that most can be effective tools in the right context, no one tool is absolutely critical, and your focus should be on making feasible changes that you can stick to over the long run.