I ran two 5K races last year: one on Thanksgiving Day, and one on Christmas Eve. By my own doing, my race on Thanksgiving Day was limited to a physical and mental experience. I was preoccupied with babying my knee to avoid re-injury, and I thought of little else as I ran the race.
Christmas Eve was another story. The race route traveled through a beautiful, wooded park and it was a gorgeous day. The crisp, cool air and bright sunshine beaming down at me through the trees stirred up feelings of awe and gratitude. As the race began, so did my prayers. Prayers of thanks for this glorious day flooded my mind. They were soon joined by prayers of thanks for the physical ability to enjoy this event, and then finally, prayers for the runners around me. I felt God’s presence so strongly throughout the entire race, and I felt His love pour out as I chatted with and encouraged my fellow racers. It was a beautiful experience I’ll never forget.
By simply acknowledging God’s presence with you as you exercise, you’ve invited Him to join you in an activity that otherwise wouldn’t be spiritual. The options are many: There’s great worship music these days to occupy you during a hard workout, and the Bible on tape can be the best walking companion. No matter what kind of exercise you’re doing, it is possible to add spiritual benefits to your list of reasons to keep going.
Let’s discuss healthy reasons to exercise, and how to set reasonable goals to make exercise a healthy habit.
Load-bearing exercise and its benefits
Load- or weight-bearing exercise refers to activities that require your body to support your own weight, and can include an additional weight you’re carrying. An easy example is weight training. When you lift an iron dumbbell, your body is supporting your own weight plus the added weight of the dumbbell. Load-bearing exercise doesn’t require an external load; walking, hiking, jogging and dancing are also considered load-bearing since your body is supporting its own weight.
The greatest benefit of load-bearing exercise is that it builds bone density — strong bones. This lowers your risk of osteoporosis (weak bones) as you age. Bone mass peaks sometime in your 30s, so load-bearing exercise is especially important when you’re young. For individuals beyond their 30s, load-bearing exercise is an important part of osteoporosis prevention and treatment. Other benefits include increased muscular strength, weight loss, and better balance and coordination.
Cardiovascular exercise and its benefits
Cardiovascular exercise, more commonly called “cardio,” is any activity that increases your heart rate. Many activities double as both cardio and load-bearing exercise: jogging, brisk walking, stair climbing and dancing. Bicycling is an example of an exercise that is cardiovascular, but not load-bearing (your weight is supported by the bike, not your body). Cardio has many benefits: improved oxygen consumption, stronger heart and lungs, weight loss, better endurance, and a lower resting heart rate, to name a few.
Beyond the physical benefits of exercise, there are also mental benefits. Regular exercise lowers stress levels, and offers relief from depression and anxiety. It can also lead to more confidence in yourself and your body. Most importantly, it sets a great example for any young eyes that may be watching.
The unfortunate truth about habits is that they form whether we intend to form them or not; while an active lifestyle can become a habit, inactivity can become a habit as well. To avoid this trap, be intentional about exercise. Goal setting is a great way to be intentional, and can be a source of motivation and accountability.
How to set a S.M.A.R.T. goal
The S.M.A.R.T. goal is a goal that’s specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused and time-bound. Let’s explore how to make a S.M.A.R.T. goal to establish the healthy habit of regular exercise.
Specific — “Make exercise a habit” is a bit too broad. A more specific goal would be “exercise at least twice per week for the next three months.” A more specific goal could also include the specific types of exercise you’ll do.
Measurable — How can an exercise habit be measured? Try measuring the number of exercise sessions per week, or the number of minutes spent exercising each week.
Achievable — It’s good to challenge yourself, but remember that we’re going for longevity. It’s better to set a goal to exercise twice per week for three months, than four times per week for six. At the end of your first goal, you can always set another!
Results-focused — In this case, the result we want is to establish a habit, or regular pattern of exercise. Make sure your goal is crafted with this result in mind, and avoid mixing in other goals or results (like weight loss, a better 5K time, etc.).
Time-bound — Time limitations help keep us accountable. Think of a bride who is getting in shape for her wedding day. A fixed date getting closer and closer is motivation in and of itself! To make exercise a habit, you want to exercise regularly over a period of time.
Your S.M.A.R.T. goal to make regular exercise a habit could be “exercise at least 30 minutes twice per week for the next three months.”
Exercise, health and fitness are often lumped together with discussions of body image. It’s important to know that God loves you no matter what you look like, that we’re made in His image, and that our worth should come from God alone — not from our level of fitness or body shape. Exercise is both physical and mental by nature, but who says it can’t be spiritual as well?