Link Between Exercise And Religion
Exercise is a specific type of physical activity that is planned, repetitive, and done for a specific purpose. Exercise requires an extreme amount of discipline, determination, dedication, devotion, consistency, sacrifices, trust, and loyalty. In regard to these characteristics, exercise appears to be very similar to religion and faith and can even be considered a pseudo-religion or parareligion. Parareligion refers to an ideology or aspect in culture “that religious elements are present, but they are presented ambiguously” (Ward 323); in other words, it is a “sort of religion” (323). Classifying exercise as a parareligion adequately describes the similarities and shared values between exercise and religion without fully declaring exercise a religion, as the connection ultimately is still insufficient due to debatable components and questionable comparisons.
Categorizing exercise as a parareligion places focus on the times where the sacred elements of religion like rituals and worship exists, but acknowledges some ironies or incompatibilities that prevent its complete classification as a religion. In terms of exercise, people usually commit themselves to a certain type of denomination or cult of fitness – running, bicycling, powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, bodybuilding, CrossFit, Strongman, etc. – in order to improve themselves and their lives, just like they would for religions and faith. Gymgoers devote and orient their lives around the gym and participate in certain rituals, traditions, and routines. They tend to religiously follow a strict nutrition plan and/or workout program, have certain idiosyncrasies they like to do before certain exercises or lifts, and even eat a certain “lucky” pre-workout meal (Kjensmo). Some of these enthusiasts may even consider their body to be a temple, adhering to a strict nutrition plan of fasting, sacrifice, and a dearth of pleasure. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 implicitly reinforces the need for the gym and for taking care of our physical bodies by stating, “Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God?… So you must honor God with your body” (Chery). The concepts of rituals and allegiance are shared between fitness and religion.
Analyzing the gym and its members manifests even more similarities between religion and fitness. Just like sports fans have places of worship in stadiums and local sports bars (Price 294), gym members also possess their own place of worship – sometimes referred to as the “Glorious House of Gains” or the “Church of iron” (Staleystrategies). They make daily trips or pilgrimages to these sacred places to improve themselves alongside a community of faithful gatherers who share the same purpose as well. These gatherers or community of gym rats are united together, just like a community of religious worshippers. They tend to form relationships and in-groups, to exchange ideas, and to share life experiences and wisdom (Staleystrategies). These people usually wear a specific set of outfits, style, and gear (knee sleeves, belts, wrist wraps, etc.) with certain symbols from recognized brands that designate that they belong to a certain “denomination” of exercise (Romanoff). In these places of worship, personal fitness trainers and strength coaches can behave like priests and rabbis, teaching the fitness congregation the invaluable skills needed to work out and to live healthy and offering their wisdom and sage advice (Kjensmo). These trainers may even have studied and learned their sage wisdom from a holy text or source (Vries). The community in a gym is usually a tight-knit family with its fair share of wise teachers and gurus willing to spread their knowledge and to help everyone out.
The concept of sinning or going against the moral code of a belief system is a major similarity between religion and fitness. Religious sins consist of concepts like premarital sex, murder, diet restrictions etc.; yet there are some members of the faith that disregard these rules. Gymgoers may sin by eating cheat meals, indulging in junk food, taking an impromptu rest day, or even drinking alcohol (Vries); these temptations only diminish the returns from the hard work they put into the gym. Like religious saints, fitness also has exemplary role models that prove that their respective way of life is attainable as a human. These model citizens of faith and discipline are what people aspire to be and are looked to for guidance in order to stay on the path towards salvation and gains.
Building off similar moral values between fitness and religion, one could investigate how the life values learned from exercise coincide with universal religious values, especially Christian ones. The major value that religion and fitness teach is discipline; “hard-work, discipline, and self-denial are intrinsically virtuous” (Edgely 189). Working out, like religion, incessantly challenges us to improve oneself and is not easy; it requires discipline, patience, consistency, and stoicism in the face of suffering. In Sweat your prayers: Movement as spiritual practice, the more people sweat, the more they “let go of physical and psychological toxins, and the more we can reconnect the desire for spiritual purity with appropriate discipline of the flesh” (Roth). The physical struggle correlates with the struggle to stay virtuous and sinless in a world full of temptations. A Journey Toward Wholeness, a Journey to God: Physical Fitness as Embodied Spirituality echoes a similar sentiment, stating how exercise can be “if done with the right intention, a form of spiritual discipline that reflects the relational love of humanity to God” (Greenwood). Having faith, whether in a higher power or in the process of working out, and persevering, especially when things are not going the way it was expected, is immensely difficult. Even though it will be laborious, people will “never be successful in [an] exercise program or any aspect of life, emotional, whatever, unless [they] have self-discipline” (Edgily 190). Discipline is the key to being a virtuous, dedicated student of both exercise and religion.
Fitness, like religions, can be a stepping stone to a more permanent state of happiness and fulfillment (Romanoff). Religions have the tendency “promote self-esteem, self-control, and a sense of mastery” (Page 94) because they give people meaning, responsibility, and structure in their lives. Similarly, exercise provides people with an opportunity to have control over their own physical health and also giving them a sense of accountability and purpose in life. Exercise can also boost self-esteem and one’s internal locus of control, which is the concept of individuals believing they have control over the events in their lives. A study by The International Journal of Psychology in 2009 took a group of sedentary subjects and put them through a series of dancing workouts three times a week for ten weeks (Aşçi 315). The results found that those who partook in the experiment developed a higher perceived internal locus of control, as they “have better control of their behaviors and are more active in seeking information and knowledge concerning their situation than nonparticipants” (Aşçi 318). Religion and fitness both promote meaning and a higher sense of purpose, ergo leading to a more fulfilling life.
Exercise and religion can teach people the more spiritual values, such as empathy, humility, and compassion. The purpose and responsibility learned from both exercise and religion contributes to the development of spiritual values, thus “increasing psychological well-being” (Page 95). In Devotional Fitness: Aspects of a Contemporary Religious System, Martin Radermacher describes movement as “the source of life, having effects on spiritual attitudes and abilities and can spawn spiritual experiences and trigger one’s journey towards God” (Radermacher 327). In regard to the gym, there are always going to be people weaker than someone, and there is always going to be someone stronger. This concept breeds humility and selflessness, which are inherently religious values. Exercise teaches people how to put their ego aside because if they do not, the weights will show no mercy and injuries will occur. Egotism and narcissism bread contempt for others and should have no place in either religion or fitness. A faithful gym community has the compassion and desire to help a fellow brother or sister of fitness reach their goals; this compassion for others and desire to put others first is a core value of religion. The selfless, empathetic sacrifice for others is something religion espouses. These spiritual, abstract values of religion can be further emphasized throughout exercise.
Fitness and religion both can provide a therapeutic and calming effect on an individual. For example, a baseball team for prison inmates in San Quentin provides a sense of therapeutic calming and allows them to transcend the harsh realities of life (Windham). Similarly, the routine of going to the gym and working out is an escape from the hardships of life where one can focus on improving oneself physically. Building on the therapeutic effect, four studies from the IDEA Fitness Journal in 2010 focused on clinically depressed individuals, and concluded that “large reductions in depression occurred from resistance training participation” (Ramirez 21). Religious routines like prayers provide the same type of consistency and an escape amongst the chaos in our lives, as individuals can calmly talk to a higher power and bring some normalization back into their lives. These routines can also provide “more mental clarity, a better perspective, and more energy” (Boncompagni). Fitness, like religion, can provide meaning and responsibility in these people’s lives, which gives life purpose and makes its suffering more bearable.
Fitness and sports can have religious aspects and can offer its participants spiritual experiences, but fitness itself falls short of being a religion. Author Julia Corbet describes religion as the “integrated systems of beliefs in which individuals find meanings in their lives by finding what they believe is sacred or holy in his or her life” (Forbes 10). While the culture of fitness accurately fits into Corbet’s description of religion, other aspects of religion are not considered by her definition. Religions tend to have a mass following, a set of beliefs, explanatory power, ethical rules and guidelines, rituals, and answers to an eternal destination. Fitness lacks a higher power or divine and supreme being and does not answer any of the chaos-provoking and unanswerable questions of human existence. Additionally, fitness tends to be more idolatrous and worship-oriented as opposed to a veneration and admiration of human beings typically found in most religions. The fitness and religion comparison has some underlying cracks that may be too gigantic to conceal.
To further understand what constitutes a religion, Rue’s model of religion will be the more accurate and main definition used for religion. According to Rue, religion has a central or narrative myth at its core that is supported by both cosmological ideologies (how things were created and what is real) and moral codes (right vs. wrong) (Worldpress.com). These three concepts are supported further by five ancillary strategies of religion that are called intellectual, aesthetic, institutional, ritual, and experiential. These strategies of religion, broken down further, consist of the intellectual wisdom and sacred texts involved, the aesthetic beauty of religious art and the natural world, the institutional religious teachers and leaders, the specific traditions followed, and the certain religious encounters experienced (Worldpress.com). Religions usually address a problem or issue with humanity, going through a phase of struggle and sinfulness, and then offering a solution as its core myth. Religion tackles a sinful component of human nature, and guided by its morality and teachings, lays out a path of self-improvement and liberation. Religion is much more complicated than being just a system of beliefs with a community of worshippers, morals, and rituals.
Rue’s classification of the specificities of religion sheds more light on the fallacies of the comparison between fitness and religion, as fitness lacks the cosmological ideologies as well as the presence of a divine, higher power. In Religion, Spirituality, and Sport: From “Religio Athletae” Toward “Spiritus Athletae,” Ivo Jirásek dives into the presence of God in sports and states, “The typical manifestation of every religion is sacredness, transcendence, and the relationship with something ‘in the role of God.’ If this polarity is absent in the relationship, the possibility of religious behavior is not realized” (294). Sports and fitness both lack a definitive higher power or divine being; ergo, they do not have cosmological ideologies such as origin stories and answers to the world’s unknowable questions like the afterlife and origins of the universe. People have an innate desire to look for normalcy and security in times of chaos and the unknown; the cosmological aspects of religion provide that sense of certainty and reassurance for humans.
In the fitness industry, however, it could be argued that the lack of a divine being is replaced by the worship of idols, most of whom are genetic anomalies who possess a better physique and who are stronger than most if not all gymgoers. People like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ed Coan, and Hafthor Bjornsson (“The Mountain”) are larger-than-life fitness presences, but even still are just humans and provide nothing to the cosmological ideology of Rues model. Because of this, fitness’s consideration as a true religion is erroneous. Instead, fitness can be seen as “an attempt to develop a religious attitude that … does not involve the characteristics of a true religion” (Jirásek 294). Simply put, fitness can help provide, develop, and even strengthen religious values and ideals, but its comparison ultimately falls short in regard to the presence of God or another deity.
Understanding that fitness is not in fact a religion and only shares qualities with religion can lead to knowing fitness in a more spiritual context. Ivo Jirásek defines spirituality as a “symbol of searching for the purpose of life, the awareness of the depths of life, the unravelling of the ethical and aesthetic dimensions of the world, the desire for harmony, and the experience of transcendence” (295). In other words, spirituality is a more personalized and subjective experience of the mind that derives itself from institutional religion and gives people all the positive aspects of a religion. In addition, spirituality reflects a “deeply personal, existential and unique anti-institutional focus on personal exploration” (Grieve 206). Fitness and exercise fit more into the spiritual classification, as it is a personal exploration for purpose, responsibility, ethics, inherently Christian values, and a sense of benevolence and meaning. Exercise can help people escape or transcend the difficulties of life, providing a sense of normalcy that humans crave in time of chaos and stress. Exercise is more like spirituality than a religion, as both spirituality and fitness are an individualized and subjective endeavor intended for personal improvement and meaning in one’s life.
Classifying exercise as a parareligion decently describes the similarities and shared values between exercise and religion, but the connection ultimately is still insufficient due to insufficient component of a higher power. Exercise and fitness have certain rituals, traditions, community, and devotions while also coinciding nicely with teaching inherent religious and moral values. Despite all the similarities, fitness and exercise ultimately lack a divine presence and answers to the unknown variables of the universe, two vital functions of a religion. Because of this, fitness can be thought of as a parareligion or a spiritual experience. Working out and getting moving in general provides much more than physical improvement; it can lead to mental, spiritual, emotional, and social development as well. Exercise is much more than picking things up and putting them down; it is a path towards self-improvement.