Hang around a health club, and you’ll meet the die-hards. The ones you don’t talk to for fear of breaking their focus. The ones with a list of their upper body, lower body, cardio, interval training, strength and flexibility workouts ready when you ask. The ones who can tell you how many years it’s been since they missed more than a day of exercise. The ones without an ounce of fat. Yeah, I’ve envied them, too.
To attain a level of fitness requires effort, and it comes at a price. When we strenuously exert ourselves physically, our body’s energy storehouse is ransacked, we lose fluids, and muscle tissue fibers are torn. It seems logical to push the same muscles hard on consecutive days as science has shown it’s the breaking down that leads to greater strength and endurance.
All well and good, but if the body doesn’t have time to regenerate itself and repair the damage caused by physical exertion, progress stops. We think it’s the relentless pushing and striving to achieve that makes Olympic champions and die-hard gym rats. Actually it leads to injuries and overtraining—that point when you’re tired and sore for days after your workout.
The real secret to strength and growth? It’s counterintuitive–rest. It’s taking a break, one more substantial than eight hours of sleep. Depending on the situation, it might be three or four days, it might be a month. Without it, the body can’t recuperate and patch up the muscle tears and depleted storehouses. Ripping more fibers in the same muscles you taxed yesterday isn’t helping, it’s hurting you. When training and rest are regularly out of balance, fitness levels actually decline.
When we’re used to regular work-outs and have a goal in sight, it’s hard to rest. It’s true whether we’re training for a marathon or slogging through rehab. We feel like slackers with idle hands ready for the devil’s workshop. We miss the adrenaline fix, that competitive spot in our solar plexus pleads for food, and our mind plays host to an ongoing debate between “Don’t stop; don’t be a quitter” and “I’m exhausted.”
Today’s physiological science substantiates the need our bodies have for rest; a model set in place as early as God’s institution of the Sabbath in Genesis 1 and 2. Scripture’s not just about rest; Paul used the athletic metaphor regularly in his writings about the Christian life, about soul and spirit (and body) matters. For example, “You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?” Or, “Do you not know that in a race all runners run, but only one gets the prize?”*
What’s true for our bodies is true for our souls; true for our spirits. They’re interwoven, and all three need rest. All three need time for restoration. It’s easy to overtrain our physical body; it’s twice as easy to overtrain our souls and our spirits, and twice as hard to detect. If we sprain an ankle, others will notice, but our souls’ limping will be invisible. We probably don’t notice when our soul/spirit reserves are running low, but we need to develop an inventory. We are wise when we take the lessons gathered from physiological expertise and apply them to our interior experience.
When I’m noodling through a problem, whether it’s personal or a formatting battle with Microsoft Word, my tendency is to push and relentlessly pursue a solution. If my to-do plate is piled high, a break is not in the stack. Yet that would be the best thing for my mind, my heart and my soul. Small breaks every 60-90 minutes help replenish, but there’s still a need to set aside longer periods for restoration.
What can that look like? One friend schedules quarterly silent retreats for herself and her church; another spends thirty minutes a day in silence and solitude. One woman listens to praise music and spends the evening journaling her thoughts and prayers; another paddles her kayak on the lake or takes long walks. One pastor regularly joins a monastic community for a week and follows their Divine Offices of prayer and study; another schedules a sabbatical month every few years.
The battle to claim space for soul and spirit rest mimics the battle for physical rest, and the results do, too. It will be a challenge, but it’s the counter-intuitive secret to strength and growth we all need to know—and do.
*Galatians 5:7, I Corinthians 9:24