Christmas may be “the most wonderful time of the year” as the song says — but it is also the time where it is the most difficult to control eating. The propensity to gain weight is evidenced by the reality that the typical adult gains five to eight pounds from the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. That’s the equivalent of eating about 20,000 excess calories.
The challenge of maintaining a healthy lifestyle mushrooms with huge mounds of food at holiday dinners at home and at work, coupled with busy schedules that often interrupt any exercise routines people may have.
The Internet has story after story detailing how to cope with overeating and how to control weight loss. But the matter of unhealthy eating and obesity has much deeper ramifications than just an individual’s health status. Rather, it reflects on how Christians view the stewardship of their bodies and the example the church sets for an unbelieving world.
In America, the obesity epidemic has reached staggering levels, but for the Bible belt, the story is even worse,” said Lainey Greer, fitness coordinator of the Health and Recreation Center at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. She specializes in exercise science, but also helps provide nutrition guidance for students at Southern as well as Boyce College.
“Something the Lord showed me years ago was the overlap when comparing the most religious states with the most obese states. The overlap is clear — the states claiming to be the most religious are also the most obese,” Greer said. “It’s not that being a Christian brings a weight issue — it’s not that — but I think we can conclude that our faith doesn’t always make a difference when it comes to how we take care of our bodies. We believe that God created everything, that He created our bodies. We give our lives to the Lord, but we don’t necessarily give our bodies to the Lord in the same way. I don’t think that an unbelieving world can make sense of that.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Greer points out that the states regarded as the healthiest are the ones which have the highest levels of atheism or agnosticism. She suggests that for the church, “It would seem our Christian faith is not influencing our health practices.”
Failure to adhere to biblical admonitions regarding care of the body results in harm to society in general. “As instances of obesity rise, so do obesity-related diseases … diseases of excess,” Greer said. “The cost of these diseases has caused healthcare costs to skyrocket. With the high number of overweight people and the obesity we see in our churches, we must accept the fact that we are burdening society by the costs of these diseases.
“It’s important to recognize that our bodies are gifts from the Lord and we are called to steward them because He’s given us our body. And stewardship implies a responsibility to care for them in a way that honors the Lord. Obviously, we have the biblical command against gluttony. We want to ask ourselves: is my desire to eat in this situation driven by an idolatrous way of thinking about food? Am I just consumed with how much food I’m going to eat?
“We need to guard against gluttony, but also recognize that the Apostle Paul says we should glorify the Lord in everything we do — and then he mentions eating and drinking. So the fact that he commands glorifying the Lord in those ways specifically means that we can dishonor the Lord in those ways. If the Spirit is convicting you over certain areas of eating in your life, we should submit in those ways.
“If we recognize the greater significance of our bodies, that the Lord has given us our bodies to steward, then it provides greater motivation to take care of them. And not just during the holiday season, not just New Year’s resolutions, but the whole year.”
She added that it necessitates asking questions about the nutritional content of foods that one eats. Is it going to benefit your body?
“If you go to a gas station to fill up your car, you want good quality gas because you want to take care of your car. It’s the same way with food. Just eating whatever you want, eating foods that aren’t very nutritious — processed foods, fast foods, fried foods — these aren’t necessarily the best for our bodies. We want to fuel our bodies in a way that not just takes care of the body, but is honoring to the Lord.”
Greer has been interested in fitness and weightlifting from an early age. The church where she attended had a weight room, sparking a desire in that discipline that led to her getting a personal training certification. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in exercise science. “The Lord really developed a passion in me for helping Christians understand why it is important to take care of their bodies. I never had any intentions of a Ph.D., but the Lord has just guided in certain ways in my life.” At Southern, she’s a systematic theology major with a minor in biblical counseling. Her dissertation is on human embodiment and body image.
“I was in ministry about 10 years before coming to Southern and I saw first-hand how common burnout is in ministry. Ministry is one of those things where you have to take care of your whole person in order to serve well,” Greer noted.
Advice for parents
In many homes, mealtimes can be battle times. How can those times be less stressful?
“A lot of times kids can be picky and parents, instead of fighting with the child, will let them only eat a few foods that they will eat,” Greer said. “Generally, if you are persistent, the child will grow in their willingness to eat different foods. If you are setting an example for your child with good nutritional habits, then that’s going to be passed down. If you have bad habits with nutrition or exercise, that’s going to be passed down as well. What is your child seeing you do or not do?
“It’s okay to have a treat after a meal, but if the child hasn’t eaten well — if the child hasn’t eaten vegetables or other healthy food — then the child shouldn’t get rewarded for not eating well during the meal.”
Greer acknowledges that many people are intimidated by the idea of starting an exercise program in a gym and that keeps many people from starting a workout regimen.
“I think people have misconceptions that prevent them from getting regular activity,” she said. “You don’t have to have all the latest, greatest exercises to do. There are just basic movements for your major muscle groups.
“You don’t have to have equipment to get a decent workout at home. If you have a set of stairs, you can do certain movements on the stairs for your legs. People have cans of soup at home or they have gallon containers of milk they can use as weights. As silly as that sounds, I tell people to not throw away that gallon container of milk, but put rocks or sand in them and use that as a weight. The Internet is a great tool to provide some bodyweight exercises to do in the home without equipment. You can do squats and lunges and push-ups and planks and things like that.”
Most gyms have someone on staff who can set up a workout plan and provide an overview of the equipment and exercises that can be done. “A lot of people go to machines in a gym first. A machine is going to do a lot of the work for you initially and is going to help you with proper form. But then after a month or two, it’s good to graduate and start doing movements with dumbbells. With dumbbells, your muscles are having to work in a different way. Your balance and coordination are tested in ways that the machines don’t test you. That’s beneficial for everyday life.”
Inactivity vs. injury
As people age, Greer said they can expect to deal with one of two things. “If you don’t workout, you’re likely going to develop some type of chronic disease, whether it be high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, something like that. On the flip side, if you workout, you’re going to have an injury at some point — maybe you pull a muscle. But which would you rather do? Would you rather guard against a chronic disease by trying to get regular activity or are you going to take that chance on an injury?”
Women and weights
Greer observed that some women are hesitant to lift weights, fearing that will result in a muscular or bulky look. But Greer said, “The Lord didn’t design our bodies that way when it comes to hormones. Unless as a female that is what you are going for — to put on a lot of muscle, which involves a lot more lifting and some nutritional things — just lifting weights in a gym is not going to make you put on a lot of muscle.
“Some men think they only need to lift weights and don’t need any cardiovascular work. But our heart is a muscle, so it’s important to do both those things. There are a lot of ways that you can you can lift weights in a way that does increase your heart rate and you get a cardiovascular effect. It is important to incorporate both into any type of workout program.”
For more information and helpful hints, visit Greer’s blog at embodimentblog.org.