The Spirituality of Exercise

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The man in the weight room lifting weights next to me looked like he was about 85 years old, give or take a couple of years in either direction.  He was seated, lifting ten pound barbells over his head. He was fit and trim.  Like me he was doing a series of lifts in sets of three. I noticed, as he moved from one set to the next that at the end of each he made a little fist pump gesture.  It was a very modest version of the famous Tiger Woods motion after Tiger sinks a big putt.  There was a slight smile on the older man’s face too.

We were surrounded by dozens of twenty- and thirty-something athletes.  All of them were in much better shape than the two of us.  They were throwing around hundreds and hundreds of pounds but none of them was as inspirational in that moment as this octogenarian quietly going through his workout.

That little fist pump at the end of each routine was like an amen at the end of a prayer.  His quietly humble gesture seemed to be a way of saying thank you.  I don’t know the man.  I have no idea if he is a person of faith, but I was deeply affected by what I was witnessing.  This man was alive, fully alive.

Three months ago my wife and I began working with a personal trainer.  I suppose it is something that fifty-year olds do to try to slow down time but for me it has become a part of my prayer life.  As I go through each routine I find my mind empties the cares of the day.  The meeting that seemed stressful earlier suddenly comes into focus as I struggle to lift the modest amount of weight above my head.  As I pound out another three miles on the treadmill, something I used to abhor, I now find that my sermon thoughts come together in a way that three months ago was a struggle.

The tenacity of the workout has helped my prayer life too.  I confess that it is easy for me to get distracted in my prayers by the cares and worries of the day.  Now, however, when the distractions start piling up in the middle of my daily prayers, I push through them like I am on the last leg of my run or I continue to “lift” them as if they are barbells raised toward heaven.

The spiritual life is very much like the physical life in one sense: In order to remain healthy, one must continue to practice, almost daily, the basic routines.  I stumble and fall both in the gym and in my study.  I doubt that I will ever reach the goals I have set for prayer and physical exercise but now, every time I complete my morning prayers, I give a little fist pump and I’m pretty sure that God can see me smiling.