What if someone told you they knew the secret to a better life? What if they shared this secret with you? They promised you would be able to concentrate better, enjoy life more, increase productivity at work, decrease stress at work and at home, and have a better sense of self-esteem.
It sounds too good to be true.
But researchers at Lancaster University reported these exact results from its Research Centre for Organizational Health and Well-being. In 2010, the university partnered with the Global Corporate Challenge to "study the impact that increasing daily physical activity has on the physical and mental health and wellbeing of employees across the world."
Christian K. Roberts and R. James Barnard from UCLA had reached similar conclusions in a 2005 study. They write, "There is a solution to this epidemic of metabolic disease that is inundating today's societies worldwide: exercise and diet."
That's the secret to a better life. More exercise and healthier eating.
It's not a secret really, but it's an idea that still eludes too many Christians in America. Consider the Northwestern University study from 2011 that found "young adults who attend church or a bible study once a week are 50% more likely to be obese."
This statistic is alarming, but don't make assumptions about what causes what. Church and bible study correlate with increased obesity rates, but that doesn't mean church causes obesity. Still, I wish church attendance correlated with healthy living rather than obesity.
Valerie Hess and Lane Arnold hope for something better, too. In their book The Life of the Body: Physical Well-Being and Spiritual Formation, they argue that Christians have a moral obligation to take care of their bodies. The apostle Paul makes a similar argument to the Corinthians when he says,
Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.
Paul is addressing the problem of lust and sexual immorality in the church at Corinth, but his words speak to our culture's problem with gluttony and sedentary lifestyles.
The third chapter in The Life of the Body considers traditional Christian settings. Honoring God with our bodies includes the way we hold ourselves during worship or different postures we adopt for prayer. Personally, I have come to love praying as I run, but I was pleased to see the authors quickly expand this concept to daily life.
They explain that keeping a healthy body in and of itself is honoring to God. The spiritual discipline of being healthy is at least as important as how we use our bodies to engage in other spiritual disciplines like prayer and corporate worship. This idea fits well with our thinking here at The High Calling where we try to find the holiness of all activities.
I confess that Hess and Arnold almost lose me in their chapter on the theology of food (which could be titled the politics of food) when they reprint three full paragraphs from the Institute for Science in Society about the dangers of genetically modified foods. The work of this controversial group has widely been dismissed as left-wing pseudoscience. Of course, any group doing research on GM foods is diving into controversy, but I wish the authors had cited more credible experts on all sides of the GM debate. (In full disclosure, I consulted with several people while preparing this article, including a communications expert for a GM seed company.)
Mostly, though, the authors stick to good health in the traditional sense—regular exercise and healthier eating. By the end of chapter five, they are back on track with their description of food as a focal practice. Our sister program Laity Lodge has been exploring this approach to spiritual formation for the past few years in their food retreats. Hess and Arnold's ideas about food and community match closely with ours:
How often do we multitask while eating: grabbing lunch at our desk at work or while running back and forth between the kitchen and the laundry room? …In our rush to "be productive," we too often forget how to simply be. We view our food with the same detachment we have toward putting gas in the car…. Food is a gift from God to strengthen our bodies and spirits, to be shared in community.
Eating in community is a key element of honoring God with our food, but community is also the key to better habits. When I am looking to change my eating habits and adopt a more active lifestyle, I remember the secret to the secret. The Global Corporate Challenge increased the health and well-being of so many employees in part because those employees worked together. It was a corporate challenge, a community challenge.
God does not expect us to heal ourselves. As Hess and Arnold say, "God has designed our bodies to seek health." And God has blessed us with communities—at work, at church, and in our homes—to help us stay focused and honor him with our bodies.
On Mondays in May we'll be discussing The Life of the Body: Physical Well-being and Spiritual Formation by Valerie E. Hess and Lane M. Arnold. If you've posted on your blog about the book, leave your link in the comments. Or, just jump in the discussion! Join us next week as Duane Scott leads us in discussing chapters 6-8. Our June book selection is Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work by Chip and Dan Heath. Get your book and join us in June.