In part 1 of this essay, I reflected on what makes for a balanced life in terms of the bodily needs for proper care in feeding the body. I continue with reflections on our need to pursue exercise, sleep, and to avoid harmful substances.
Exercising the Body
Second, the increasing level of sedentary work in modern society requires that we add bodily exercise to our schedule. The body is designed to work; our muscles atrophy when we do not use them (after just three days of inactivity!). In earlier times or outside the developed world, people had lots of physical activity as part of a normal day for doing jobs, moving from place to place, and the work at home of food, laundry, and maintenance. My HMO recommends 30-minutes of aerobic activity for five days a week. Where would we find that time? The modern, first-world problem is how to exercise the body when the natural flow of responsibilities is very sedentary.
Exercise can be time-consuming and physically tiring. We seem to be able to function well enough without it (compare to the way we can get by with poor nutrition). Unfortunately, we easily forget what it feels like to be healthy and we assume that a life with little or no exercise is just the way things are supposed to be. I have found that daily exercise makes everything better in my ability to think clearly, relate to my family with more patience and less tension, to sleep at night, and to do creative work. I have observed that regular exercise balances out people in my family, too. We seem to have more elasticity for the stress of life when our bodies have been exercised.
Similar to the benefits of the Sabbath principle of refraining from work to be renewed weekly, exercise is a way to trust God for our productivity and enjoy life as God has provided it. I do best with exercise when the activity is intrinsically enjoyable (like play). Exercise can be extra beneficial when I can have a social dimension of doing sport with friends and acquaintances. Exercise is also great for solitude and prayer, since I’m unable to get work done, but I am able to meditate and talk to God. Exercise balances me out physically and psychologically (spiritually) more than food, and just as much as good sleep. Exercise and sleeping well seem to work together.
Surrendering to Sleep
Third, God has designed us to sleep one-third of our days, to be unconscious and inactive for a third of our life here. We are easily tempted to short ourselves on sleep to accomplish more work or to indulge in more entertainment. Like living with poor nutrition and lack of exercise, we can adapt to inadequate sleep…for a season. Unfortunately, we forget what it means to feel well-rested, we compensate by regular infusions of caffeine and sugar, and we push the body to live regularly on adrenaline—as if we are in a constant crisis. Experts who study our need for sleep agree that people have different needs, but most people need between seven and nine hours each night. Children and teens need more, since much growth occurs when we are asleep.
Like food and exercise, sleep can be viewed as a gift from God, or as a troublesome hindrance of the body to getting my work done. Sleep is an opportunity to trust God (Jason McMartin). I find that my tendency to strive instead of rely on God’s provisions can be countered by embracing my body’s need for sleep. My extra work is not going to save the world, so I might as well get good rest so that I can be ready for whatever God has called me to tomorrow. Brain research shows that proper sleep is necessary for normal brain function: without good sleep, things we tried to learn are lost from memory, and during sleep our brain clears out the waste generated by metabolism throughout the day (the brain works very hard, using twenty percent of our daily consumption of fuel).
Admitting my heavy need for sleep of seven to eight hours each night is embracing the weakness that I am as a creature. The only value in my life is God’s work anyway, not my puny exertions, so I may as well be ready to engage with God’s involvement instead of trying to function with a foggy brain. A balanced life will embrace the weakness of our physical needs for sleep and rest—even Jesus took a nap when he was exhausted during the day. Of course there are exceptions of having to forego sleep for some crisis of intense prayer through the night (just as Jesus did multiple times), caring for someone who is ill, or completing some project, but to do these regularly will unbalance the body and the life.
Avoid the Toxins
Fourth, Gregg Allison writes that we must avoid harmful substances. As noted above with feeding the body, we have a confusing situation to discern what is harmful for us. Obviously, drugs, alcohol, and tobacco are toxic to us physically. Some nutritionists are adding sugar to that list of what is toxic (above the level of 24 grams a day, 6 teaspoons). Overeating is noted negatively in the Bible as gluttony, but so much of our cultural celebrations involve us in excessive feasting and, with some holidays, a flood of candy and other sweets. Want to be happy? Eat some candy, or drink the liquid candy that is sold by Starbucks and Coca-Cola. I have watched my children succumb to the thrall of a sugar-dopamine high at Halloween, and then the angry, grumpy crash that follows (it’s not a happy time).
Of course, we have a clear analogy from the toxic effects of what we eat and drink to the toxic effects of what we watch and listen to. The axiom ‘You are what you eat’ is true of us in our spiritual condition as much as it is of our physical well-being. I have practiced intermittent fasting for physical health benefits, and I’ve combined that with fasting from social media and news on fast days. The dual dimension of fasting physically and spiritually was refreshing. Toxicity unbalances us in easily avoidable ways, so a balanced life includes protecting ourselves from that which damages us, even in small ways.
Continue to Part 3 ...