Revitalizing Faith: The Harmony of Body, Mind, and Spirit

As a clergyman, my life revolves around reading, researching, writing, contemplating, and directing spiritual guidance. Nobody compensates me for performing any physical exertion, my responsibilities mainly confine me to a desk in front of a screen. While these duties are not physically demanding, they often bring emotional challenges that sometimes make me yearn for the straightforwardness of manual labor.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that I want to switch to a full-time manual job. I truly cherish my role which entails intellectual stimulation and contemplation. However, I have realized that my performance in these non-physical tasks substantially improves when I maintain an active lifestyle. Moving my body, and engaging in physical exercise, seems to stimulate my brain, helping me think clearer, and more creatively, with enhanced focus and mental endurance.

Have you ever felt that too? The sensation of a recharged brain after a good workout session? Is it a placebo effect, or does science have an explanation for this?

To demystify this, I delved into the writings of Harvard Medical School professor John Ratey, a respected figure in the study of ADHD, who eventually consolidated his observations about the beneficial effects of exercise on mental health in his book “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.” His key proposition is that regular exercise enhances brain functionality more than we realize. While developing muscles and conditioning the heart and lungs are important, Ratey suggests that the core purpose of the exercise is to stimulate and condition the brain.

What does it mean for our sedentary lifestyle, where our bodies get little movement, and our brains are the prime workers? Ratey contends that just as muscles grow with use and shrink with inactivity, so does the brain. Physical movement stimulates our brain, enhancing our capacity to learn – a vital aspect for us as Christians striving to love our Lord with heart, soul, strength, and mind.

Physical exercise sharpens our mindset, improving alertness, attention, and motivation. It prepares and encourages our nerve cells to bind to each other, forming the basis for acquiring new information. Additionally, it promotes the development of new nerve cells.

Being more alert to the world, to others, and to intellectually challenging texts can truly enrich our lives as Christians. In a world plagued with distractions, this increased attention is a valuable benefit.

Exercise also triggers a cascade of effects in our brains and bodies, ranging from neurogenesis (the formation of new brain cells) to strengthening the cellular foundation for assimilating new information. The increased heart rate and blood flow from exercise are beneficial not just for our physical well-being, but also for our learning abilities.

Ratey explains that exercise boosts our neurotransmitters, balancing them with other neurochemicals in the brain. Exercise stimulates the release of BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor), which aids in learning. As we engage in physical activity, these factors penetrate our brain’s protective barriers, working in conjunction with BDNF to enhance our capacity for learning.

This understanding isn’t explicitly Christian. Rather, it falls within the domain of what we might call “natural revelation.” Nevertheless, we as Christians can reflect upon these neurological discoveries and their relevance to our relationship with God and His calling.

In his letter to Timothy, Apostle Paul acknowledged the value of bodily training but emphasized that godliness holds promise for the present life and the life to come (1 Timothy 4:8). This scripture encourages us to evaluate the tangible value we attribute to bodily training and to consider if we exercise merely to lose weight and live longer, or if we recognize its value in fostering godliness and serving the calling of Christ.

As followers of Christ, let us not neglect our physical health or take lightly our lives “in the body” (2 Corinthians 5:10). With the knowledge we now possess about brain plasticity and the benefits of exercise to the brain, we should strive to incorporate regular, modest exercise into our routines. Not only can it serve as a means of building and conditioning our brains for serious thinking, but it can also nurture our Christian joy and our service to Christ.

Let’s draw inspiration from B.B. Warfield’s “Religious Life of Theological Students,” where he proposes a balance between study and prayer. Today, we might add to Warfield’s formula: “How about twenty minutes of modest exercise?” This could be our way of embracing our body’s needs to better serve our minds, our faith, and ultimately, our Lord.