What do prayer and exercise have in common? More than you think! Here are five things they have in common that can help you stay motivated to do both.
1. They both cultivate discipline.
In his biblical letters to the early Christians, St. Paul often compares the self-control required for Christians to athletic training. It’s no coincidence—both athletes and Christians have to be extremely disciplined. If I want to be a great athlete, I have to train every day. If I want to have a strong relationship with God, I have to pray every day.
More than just having a prayer or workout regimen, I have to structure my day and my work entirely around my end goal, whether that’s becoming a saint or becoming a great athlete. With prayer, that’s creating a rule of life or general structure to my day that revolves around prayer, like praying the Rosary in the morning, going to Mass over my lunch break, and giving thanks to God before I go to bed. With physical training, that means getting enough sleep, fueling my body with good food, and making sure I keep up with my workout routine. Both prayer and wellness require discipline in all areas of our lives.
While it’s true that not everyone will become a professional athlete or fitness guru, we can all become saints. We just have to apply the same type of professional-level discipline to our prayer and actions. Eventually, little by little, we will grow in virtue.
2. You don’t always see their results right away.
Eight … nine … ten pushups! Can you see my muscles yet?!
With working out, we often want to see quick results. Just look at the many advertisements for weight-loss supplements and fad diets. But when it comes to exercise, we’re playing the long game. Muscles are developed over time.
Similarly, our “spiritual muscles” take time to get stronger. When we choose to pray, attend Mass, or turn away from temptation, we are strengthening those muscles.
And just like you wouldn’t go in as a novice athlete and try to lift a 250-pound barbell, you likely wouldn’t be able to sit and pray for an hour if you are just starting out. Start with five-pound weights and five minutes of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, and continue to up your weight or your time as you strengthen those muscles.
3. They’re both done well in community
Whenever I train for a race, I like to do it with friends. Why? It helps me to stay motivated and it pushes me beyond what I think my limits are. Some studies have shown that we run faster and work harder when we are in groups, rather than being by ourselves. Several popes, including Pope Francis and Pope St. John Paul II, touted the many benefits of team sports as opportunities both for teamwork and for a sort of spiritual communion between athletes. Pope Francis said in 2016 that “[t]here is great beauty in the harmony of certain movements, as well as in the strength or teamwork. When it is so, the sport transcends the level of pure physicality and brings us in the arena of the spirit and even of Mystery” (“Audience participants at the first World Meeting “Sport and Faith” (5 to 7 October 2016), 10.05.2016”).
Praying in community also bolsters our own spiritual “training.” Going to Mass and receiving the Eucharist, communion, literally brings us together as the one body of Christ. The Liturgy of the Hours is often prayed in community, and even if you’re praying it alone, people around the world are praying the same words at the same time! You can also pray in community on a smaller scale by praying with your family or roommates or joining a Bible study in your local parish. All of these encourage us as Christians to live out the Gospel every day.
4. They both require sacrifice.
Oh, this is a tough one! Both exercise and prayer require that we sacrifice time and sometimes turn down invitations to do things we want to do. It can seem easy to skip prayer to hang out with friends, or miss a workout to watch Netflix. And who hasn’t wanted to give up a few reps before the end of a workout because you’re just so tired? Still, the sacrifices you make today will make you a stronger person (both in body and in will) tomorrow–so keep at it!
5. We can use both to glorify God.
Okay, so this one is a bit more obvious with prayer: we praise and worship God and glorify him when we humble ourselves before him. But St. Paul tells us, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31; author’s emphasis). He also specifically tells us to glorify God in our bodies (cf. 1 Cor 6:20).
What does this mean for us? When we exercise (without overdoing it), we’re treating our bodies with the dignity that God has intended for them. We are being good stewards of God’s creation. We are disciplining our bodies and helping combat temptation. And we will reap the benefits in time.
Prayer and exercise are not always convenient. They’re often not easy. But the choices we make to pray or exercise when we don’t feel like it help us to strengthen our muscles. With commitment and discipline, both will bear fruit in time.