Why are we here?
When asked this question in Sunday school, the answer often given is “to receive a body and be tested.” While this is a right answer, have you noticed that the discussion that usually follows tends to pass over the body and focus more on how to pass the test?
I’m sure the adversary appreciates this. Why? Because when we think and act as if we are in our premortal, unembodied state, it undermines our agency, or what Elder Bednar calls our capacity to act (general conference, April 2010). There are a number of subtle physical consequences that come when we disconnect physically from things as they really are. For example, our endurance declines, our muscle tone tanks, and our immune system is compromised. The connection that is important to make is that in time, these consequences undermine our capacity to act—to resist the temptations that weaken us and to do things that strengthen us spiritually.
For example, how many harsh words have been spoken, self-destructive thoughts entertained, or spiritually harmful content viewed in moments when we feel physically drained and weak?
Fortunately, there are some powerful, healthy activities we can do to counter the spiritual consequences of this physical disconnect. Here are three ways you can exercise to reconnect.
1. Exercise to Experience Greater Self-Mastery
The principle behind this practice comes from the Savior’s experience in the wilderness. In Jesus the Christ, James E. Talmage shares with us that one of the reasons why Christ entered the wilderness to fast for 40 days and 40 nights was so “that His mortal body might more completely be subject to His divine spirit” (Talmage 199). The dominion that He gained in this “wilderness” experience no doubt helped Him bear the burden of His infinite Atonement.
Physical exercise can create similar strength within us. Every minute that we choose to push through the pressure, panting, and discomfort that come with increased physical activity, our spirits gain greater dominion over our bodies. And this dominion can lead to greater self-mastery in our life.
Take, for example, a young mother who sets a goal to go on a 20-minute run before the rise of her twin toddlers. The first two weeks are definitely a wilderness experience for her. Her body protests every pavement-pounding step. However, each morning she overcomes her physical desire to sleep. Each day she exercises more dominion and self-control until eventually, rather than protesting, her body feels renewed and ready to face the day.
The same self-discipline she practices each morning increases her spiritual capacity to “put off the natural man” (Mosiah 3:19), enabling her to overcome the impulse to yell at her toddlers for creating a mess in the kitchen or to become frustrated with her husband because of some minor annoyance.
2. Exercise to Experience Greater Faith
In the Lectures of Faith we learn about the connection between physical activity and faith:
If men were duly to consider themselves, and turn their thoughts and reflections to the operations of their own minds, they would readily discover that it is faith, and faith only, which is the moving cause of all action in them; that without it both mind and body would be in a state of inactivity, and all their exertions would cease, both physical and mental. Were this class to go back and reflect upon the history of their lives, from the period of their first recollection, and ask themselves what principle excited them to action, or what gave them energy and activity . . . what would be the answer? . . . Turn your thoughts on your own minds, and see if faith is not the moving cause of all action in yourselves (Smith 11–12, emphasis added).
Faith is the moving cause of all action within us. Therefore, when we are physically active we are exercising faith. Remember, faith without works is dead (James 2:14) and exercise is a form of work, that when done on a regular basis increases our ability to exercise greater faith. Take, for example, David. When told by Saul that he was unfit to fight Goliath, David responded with greater faith than all of the other men of Israel. This was because he had previously accomplished great physical feats by slaying both a lion and a bear under the power and protection of the Lord. There is no doubt that these activities increased his ability and faith to sling the stone that slew Goliath.
The stress of a difficult career, the challenges that come with a new baby, or the unknown requirements of an upcoming senior mission might be a Goliath that's calling you out right now. Increase your faith to face him by increasing your physical activity. Every minute of physical activity you create will increase your faith to “sling the stones” that can dampen the stress of your job, strengthen your arms to hold your child, and help you walk with confidence down the humble streets of a new town.
3. Exercise to Experience Greater Joy
In Doctrine and Covenants 93:33 we learn that “spirit and element inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy; and when separated, man cannot receive a fulness of joy” (emphasis added).
From this verse, we learn that joy is directly related to the connection between our spirit and our body. As a physical therapist, I have witnessed this principle in action. I’ve seen eyes swell with tears when a patient’s spirit connects with their body to take their first independent step following a stroke or when a parent cheers as they watch their child’s spirit connect with their little body to reach a significant developmental milestone.
I believe that when our spirits act upon the elements of our bodies through physical exercise, the connection between our spirit and our body amplifies and therefore increases our capacity to experience joy.
In fact, exercise increases our happiness in three ways:
- It increases our ability to do the things that bring us joy (for example hiking the canyon, playing a pickup game of basketball at the stake center, or wrestling with the grandkids).
- It works to dramatically blunt the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
- It increases the brain's production of and sensitivity to the chemicals that enable us to experience joy.
Make the Connection
When we understand that physical activity can increase the connection between our divine spirit and our body, our perspective of exercise can change from something we feel we have to do to something that we desire to do—a desire built on the knowledge that physical exercise will increase our capacity to experience the self-mastery, faith, and joy that will help us pass the test of mortality.
Lead photo from Getty Images.
Learn more about how to increase the connection between your physical and spiritual strength in Dr. Rich Tenney, DPT and life coach Liz Tennyson’s book Fit for Good: Discovering the Connection between Physical and Spiritual Strength or at becomingfitforgood.com.