When I first heard, as a Christian, challenges to exercise those challenges were typically connected to taking care of the body the Lord has given, to stewarding well the one body the Lord has provided us in this life. When the apostle Paul challenged Timothy to train himself in godliness, he articulated that physical training has some benefit – though not nearly as much as training in godliness (I Timothy 4:7-8). Physical exercise brings benefits to our bodies, but not only to our bodies. The longer I have led the more I have learned how important exercise is for my mind and emotions. Exercise helps us care for our minds, not only our bodies.
In his book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Dr. John Ratey articulates that research insists that regular exercise increases learning, lowers the impacts of stress, combats sensitivity to anxiety, fights depression, and increases memory.
You have likely heard many leaders say; “I can feel it when I am not exercising.” Research indicates it is not just a feeling, but reality. The statement could mean they feel stress and anxiety more without exercise or that they don’t feel as mentally sharp without exercise. But not exercising does adversely impact us as leaders.
So how can we maintain an exercise routine in the midst of busy schedules and countless demands? For the last ten years, I have exercised regularly (after a season of not exercising because I insisted I was too busy with the demands of my role) and below are four lessons I have learned:
1. Plans are more important than goals.
This axiom may not be true for all of life, but for most people it is very true with exercise. It was true for me. Setting a goal to lose ten pounds or to get stronger or to get back in shape is significantly less important than blocking off time and having a plan for exercise. Having 4-5 hours a week blocked off for physical activity without an end goal is more valuable than setting an exercise goal and having no plan. Yes, it is good to have goals. But every single year countless people set fitness goals without any plans and nothing happens. With exercise, I don’t always have goals but I do have plans. Every Sunday night I look at my week and schedule times I am going to exercise.
2. Find something you enjoy.
It is so much easier to exercise when you enjoy what you are doing and even better if you can find people you enjoy exercising alongside. A sport or activity you love is what keeps exercise from being something you dread on your schedule. For a decade basketball several days a week was one of my primary ways to stay in shape. Not only did I enjoy the hoops, but also I enjoyed the guys I played alongside. After moving to SoCal, I discovered mountain biking and stand up paddle boarding – both of which also give me time with friends and family.
3. Challenge yourself.
With weights you cannot get stronger unless you lift heavier. With biking you cannot build endurance unless you push yourself further. And so on. The activity becomes more enjoyable the better you get, so give yourself challenges over time. They don’t have to be public. They don’t have to be big and earth shattering. The little challenges over time help you stay engaged.
4. If you get injured immediately try something else.
I had no serious injures before 40. Now, gosh. A year ago I experienced a moderate tear in my elbow while lifting weights. I could not even shoot a basketball because of the pain. So, I immediately ramped up mountain biking as a replacement to the weights and hoops. Then I went over the handlebars and separated my shoulder. After ten days of not exercising, I felt the difference mentally and in my energy levels so I started walking and riding a stationary bike until being able to lift and ride again. Yes, it is so boring but it is also necessary. Bottom line – I have learned the importance of trying something else if injured.
For me, exercise is not about getting “swole” but fighting stress. Yes, it still includes stewarding the body the Lord gave me but it also helps me steward the mind He gave too.