Faith, Physical Activity, and Physical Education

Faith, Physical Activity, and Physical Education


Colin G. Pennington, PhD

Assistant Professor, Tarleton State University – Fort Worth


Abstract: Within the complex system of compulsory school physical education, there are opportunities for physical educators to meet goals beyond physical-health related objectives. Positive moral socialization can occur through physical education; students who develop prosocial competence during the years of their formative education are more likely to be successful throughout their lives, promoting the belief that character and Christian-like values are what we are supposed to teach in physical education more than anything else. This leads some to make the assertion that participation in Christian-based physical education and physical activity can help young people appreciate health, exercise, and fitness; learn about themselves and handling adversity; and experience teamwork and prosocial attitudes in safe environments grounded in Christian values and ideals. After a brief review of Muscular Christianity and the historical origins of church-based physical education, this article explores the concept of Christian faith and physical education. Finally, this article provides a brief review of successful health-enhancing interventions held in church settings.

Keywords: Physical Education, Physical Activity, Christianity, Faith-Based Intervention

Statement of Original Unpublished Work: By submitting this document to the Editor in Chief of CJSCF, I am making a Statement of Original Unpublished Work not submitted to another journal for publication.




Many believe the main responsibility of school physical educators is to provide physical- and health-enhancing experiences for children in their care (Pennington 2017). It is also a broad goal of physical education to assist students in developing social and moral values (Hellison 2011). Therefore, one way teachers of physical education can reach these lofty goals is by demonstrating faith and Christianity through physical activity and facilitating meaningful student social interactions with their peers.

The purposes of this article are to: (1) briefly summarize the concept of Muscular Christianity, describing how Muscular Christianity laid the foundation for how physical education developed and is executed in K-12 schools, (2) establish the need for compulsory physical education in K-12 settings, and discuss how Christian physical educators can meet the needs of children in their care, and (3) remark on the success of church-based physical activity interventions occurring outside of, and in addition to, K-12 physical education.

Muscular Christianity

The concept of connecting Christ, Faith, and Christianity to bouts of physical activity is not a novel concept. In fact, by intent, England’s medieval games were originally closely related to the Church (Hartley 1969; Redmond 1978). The Church had stimulated interest in these games through annual feats of physical contest to which each village sent its champion. Games brought together all people and thus created better understanding among the social classes. The merit of such games was that they were social and universal. The games provided a place for every man who chose to participate (Winn 1960). As was a function of the times, women did not participate as robustly as the men during this period. At the turn of the twentieth century, American middle-class male Protestants turned to sports and muscular pursuits in the face of the increasing power of women (Millikan 2006). Recently, the question has again arisen as to when, how, and why ‘muscular Christians’ have also championed women’s sport (McLeod, Justvik and Hess, 2018; Putney 2009). Today, the legacy of the muscular Christian ethos lives on, but the gender politics have become much more ambiguous and complicated (Millikan 2006); this article will not make any attempts at providing a gender-based perspective. And of course, games also served the important function of strengthening the body; an important feature considering that individuals of this era were likely to perform physically demanding professional and/or agricultural roles.

Among the early manuscripts featuring faith is a classic article authored by William Winn (1960). Winn references the pioneering work of author Thomas Hughes, who penned the seminal novel, Tom Brown’s School Days (1857), which has become known for laying the ground work for Muscular Christianity. Winn (1960) described Hughes:

Tom Hughes had a natural love for boxing, and as boxing coach at the Working Men’s College, the school founded by himself and other Christian Socialists in London, he formulated moral and intellectual values for that sport. ‘To knock someone down, and to be a good fellow and a Christian ever afterwards’ was the creed of Muscular Christianity. (Winn 1960, 70)

This term, Muscular Christianity, was a philosophical movement that originated in England in the mid-19th century, characterized by a belief in patriotic duty, manliness, the moral and physical beauty of athleticism, teamwork, discipline, self-sacrifice, and “the expulsion of all that is effeminate, un-English, and excessively intellectual” (Newsome 1961, 216). The fundamental concepts of Muscular Christianity were derived from scriptural beliefs suggesting that since man was born with a body as well as a mind, the body should be given just as careful treatment as the mind (Watson, Weir and Friend 2005). Man’s body was a God-given gift. Therefore, man would be judged by the way in which he took care of this gift (Winn 1960). It should be acknowledged that the original advocates of Muscular Christianity promoted physical activity more for men than women, whereas contemporary society would be inclusive of all genders being physically active (Elliott and Hoyle 2014). Additionally, because the body and mind are connected, an individual who exercised properly would be able to achieve greater mental heights (Heckman 2018).

Muscular Christianity has continued through organizations that combine physical and Christian spiritual development (Roberts and Yamane 2011). One such example is through the Young Men’s and Women’s Christian Associations (known colloquially as the YMCA and YWCA, respectively), an outgrowth of Muscular Christianity, which in some areas has become largely secularized, albeit very valuable to society. Most results of Muscular Christianity have been very positive in character. In fact, it should be acknowledged that the compulsory physical education programs developed for schools were spawned from the concept of Muscular Christianity, and physical education has been extremely valuable (Winn 1960).

The Relationship between Youth Physical Education, Physical Activity, and Faith

Children can spend 50% or more of their waking hours at school. It is, therefore, incumbent on schools to provide students with sufficient opportunities to accumulate recommended levels of physical activity. Comprehensive school physical activity programs (CSPAP) advocate for a mixture of physical education, recess, classroom activity, before- and after-school physical activity programs, active transportation to/from school, and intra- and extra-mural sport (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2013). Promotion of physical activity through faith-based, self-regulated mindful movement – in lieu of sedentary behaviour – throughout the school day provides an additional option used alongside the commonly promoted CSPAP components (Kahan, Lorenz, Kawwa and Rioveros 2019).

To increase youth and adult physical activity success, the 2016 National Physical Activity Plan (NPAP) identified nine sectors for targeting strategies and tactics to increase physical activity. These include: business and industry; community recreation, fitness and parks; education; faith-based settings; healthcare; mass media; public health; sport; and transportation, land use, and community design (National Physical Activity Plan Alliance 2016). Bopp and colleagues (Bopp, Peterson and Webb 2012) argued for the potential of religious programs and spaces to positively contribute to physical activity behaviour. The merging of faith into religious school settings supports two domains identified in the NPAP: schools and faith-based organizations (Kahan et al. 2019). Among church-attending youth (11–13 years), most perceive some connection between faith and health and the need for churches to provide physical activity interventions for children (Wilmot, Martinez and He 2018). To wit, at least one Christian curriculum intervention aimed at increasing physical activity during Sunday school (using a similar approach as CSPAP) resulted in the intervention group accumulating a significantly greater step/minute rate during Sunday school than in the control group (Trost, Tang and Loprinzi 2009).

School Physical Education: Demonstrating Christianity

Compulsory K-12 physical education is often expressed as a means of encouraging students to become physically active (Gorely et al. 2011; Pennington, 2019). Some scholars view participation in physical education can provide health, social, cognitive, and affective benefits while also encouraging lifelong participation (Webster, Stodden, Carson, Egan and Nesbitt 2016). That said, some physical education scholars and health professionals (continue to) view physical education as a response to the growing concern of a public health epidemic, believing school physical education is the ideal setting for teaching students the benefits of leading a healthy lifestyle (Dwyer, Coonan, Leitch, Hetzel and Baghurst 1983; Sallis et al. 2012). Furthermore, given that part of the broad mission of education has continued to be to help students develop character and prosocial values (Stoll and Beller 1993), schools and teachers should allow children opportunities to develop healthy social skills (Pennington 2017). According to Hellison (2011), students who develop social competence during their formative education are more likely to be successful throughout their lives. The physical educator has the opportunity to create situations that will enhance students’ social and character development as well as advocate for participation in sport, physical activity, and positive social relationships (Pennington and Sinelnikov 2018).

Because past research has revealed that students hold mixed perceptions towards the merits of physical education or participating in physical activity (Bailey et al. 2009; Flintoff and Scraton 2006), discovering what barriers to enthusiastic participation is important to the field (Elliott and Hoyle 2014). In recent years, physical education pedagogues and researchers have studied, theorized about, and provided practical suggestions related to social identities (e.g., religious affiliation) and how those identities impact participation in compulsory physical education. Such efforts have had a profound impact upon those who have suffered the consequences of being ‘othered’ within physical education (ContinYou 2010). Few physical education scholars have focused closely upon the role that Christian religion affiliation might play within physical education (Robinson 2019); consequently, very little research exists regarding Christianity as a moderator to participation in K-12 physical education or the role physical education should/could play in providing opportunities for movement and physical health-enhancing behaviours. Be that as it may, some Christian physical educators believe that participation in physical activity should be encouraged (MacDonald and Kirk 1999; McLeod, Justvik and Hess 2018; Zang, Hong and Huang 2018).

The body is integral to the discourses of health and physical education just as it is to the discourses of religion. When health and physical educators hold particular religious views, there are implications for how the body is positioned in concert with questions of identity and lifestyle. (MacDonald and Kirk 1999, 131)

However, devout Christians and those adhering to the more traditional denominations (e.g., Pentecostals, Mormons) might experience religious-based barriers, in particular, issues surrounding modesty (Elliott and Hoyle 2014; Sporting Equals 2012). Those who hold fundamentalist beliefs may claim to follow a literal interpretation of the Bible. Nonetheless, despite a lack of direct evidence regarding Christianity and participation in physical activity in general, it does seem that for some Christian secondary school students, barriers to physical education might be impacted by their level of religiosity. Notwithstanding, it appears that for ‘typical’ and contemporary Christians, faith should have limited influence (Elliott and Hoyle 2014). In fact, many believe Christianity advocates for, rather than restricts against, physical activity for all (ContinYou 2010). Be that as it may, some religious-based issues (e.g., mixed-sex venues, dress code, family disapproval, and a belief that certain forms of physical activity, such as dance, can be perceived to be un-religious) might restrict sport and exercise participation, particularly for females (Elliott and Hoyle 2014). Further, some studies have determined that women participants have reported feelings of great discomfort if physical education uniforms do not meet the minimal modesty requirements (Pennington and Nelson, forthcoming).

Along with doctors, therapists, and nutritionists, physical educators are also widely considered members of their communities’ health-care team. Christian school physical educators can be resources for others who require education and guidance to maintain or improve physical health. Christian physical educators can provide emotional support and inspiration to those who need to make lifestyle changes. In fact, support for individuals looking to be physically active, physically fit, and emotionally well by adopting the principles taught in physical education may be greater in Christian-based groups (Whisenant, Cortes and Hill 2014).

Church-Based Health and Wellness Interventions

One commonly agreed-upon physical education goal is to establish the pursuit of life-long healthy behaviours (Pennington 2019). However, once a student’s time in compulsory physical education comes to an end, sometimes so does their engagement in general physical activity. Of those individuals, some choose to re-engage in health-enhancing behaviours, but may need a catalyst to re-ignite their physical activity motivation (Pennington, forthcoming). Here, church-based health and wellness interventions occurring outside of, and in addition to, K-12 physical education demonstrate their value.

Church-based health promotion interventions can reach broad populations and have great potential for reducing health disparities (Campbell et al. 2007). Christian affiliation and church attendance can improve physical and psychological health across demographic variables. Physiological benefits include less smoking, less substance abuse, better cancer and cardiovascular disease survival, improved blood pressure, body composition, waist circumference, and waist to hip ratio, increased steps/week, healthier systolic blood pressure, and burning more kcal/week (Bopp, Peterson and Webb 2012; Bopp et al. 2009). Psychological health improvements include greater longevity, less depression, less suicide, less divorce, greater social support, greater meaning and purpose in life, greater life satisfaction, more charitable giving, more volunteering, greater civic engagement, reduced depression, greater enjoyment in physical activity, and valuing social support from church members (Kark et al. 2006; Koenig, King and Carson 2012). Possible attributions to these welcomed effects include positive social networks and social support provided by fellow members, and the role of prayer, beliefs, and religious practices in psychological well-being (Fiala, Bjorck and Gorsuch 2002). Additionally, teachings about the body being a gift from God, or a temple wherein God dwells might encourage health-promoting behaviours such as exercise (VanderWeele 2017). A summary of physical activity interventions delivered in faith-based organizations revealed that overall, many of the faith-based interventions resulted in increases in physical activity among participants (Bopp et al. 2012). The effectiveness of faith-based health and wellness interventions can be heavily influenced by the attitudes, perceptions, and participation of key leaders within faith-based organizations such as the Pastor, Preacher, etc. (Webb, Bopp and Fallon 2013).


Physical activity has a tremendously great place of importance, but it should not be our only Christian priority, as the Lord desires other attributes from us than our physical fitness. Be that as it may, in his message discussing the value of physical fitness for the Christian, Daryl Wingerd (2014) pointed out four reasons for Christians to develop healthy physical behaviours leading to a healthy lifestyle (e.g., nutrition, regular exercise), which is promoted by modern, holistic, and meaningful physical education practices: (1) good stewardship, (2) learning self-control, (3) staying ready for usefulness, and (4) loving others. Each of these reasons holds a relationship between faith and physical activity. For example,

…establishing self-discipline in exercise can teach principles that help one become more self-disciplined in Bible study and prayer. The self-control required to [avoid] too much unhealthy food or the temptation to sleep in rather than work out can help you become more effective in resisting temptations to sin. (Wingerd 2014, 1)

The Bible acts as a guide, laying out important principles of how we are to live. “Christians are instructed that their body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, to cleanse from what harms body or spirit, to glorify God in whatever they do, and to present the whole self as a living gift to God” (Whisenant, Cortes and Hill 2014, 189). Therefore, it is the responsibility of physical educators to provide experiences for students in their care to demonstrate faith and Christianity through physical activity, and meaningful social interactions with their peers. In that way, both the teacher and the students are using their bodies and minds as stewards for God.



Bailey, Richard, Kathleen Armour, David Kirk, Mike Jess, Ian Pickup, Rachel Sandford, and BERA Physical Education. 2009. “The educational benefits claimed for physical education and school sport: an academic review.” Research papers in education 24, no. 1: 1-27.

Bopp, Melissa, Jane A. Peterson, and Benjamin L. Webb. 2012. “A comprehensive review of faith-based physical activity interventions.” American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine 6, no. 6: 460-478.

Bopp, Melissa, Sara Wilcox, Marilyn Laken, Steven P. Hooker, Deborah Parra-Medina, Ruth Saunders, Kimberly Butler, Elizabeth A. Fallon, and Lottie McClorin. 2009. “8 steps to fitness: a faith-based, behavior change physical activity intervention for African Americans.” Journal of Physical Activity and Health 6, no. 5: 568-577.

Campbell, Marci Kramish, Marlyn Allicock Hudson, Ken Resnicow, Natasha Blakeney, Amy Paxton, and Monica Baskin. 2007. “Church-based health promotion interventions: evidence and lessons learned.” Annu. Rev. Public Health, 28: 213-234.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2013. Comprehensive school physical activity programs: a guide for schools. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

ContinYou. 2010. Engaging young people from faith communities in PE and sport out of school hours. Retrieved from

Dwyer, Terry, Wayne E. Coonan, Donald R. Leitch, Basil S. Hetzel, and R. A. Baghurst. 1983. “An investigation of the effects of daily physical activity on the health of primary school students in South Australia.” International journal of epidemiology 12, no. 3: 308-313.

Elliott, Dave, and Kathryn Hoyle. 2014. “An examination of barriers to physical education for Christian and Muslim girls attending comprehensive secondary schools in the UK.” European Physical Education Review 20, no. 3: 349-366.

Fiala, William E., Jeffrey P. Bjorck, and Richard Gorsuch. 2002. “The religious support scale: Construction, validation, and cross‐validation.” American Journal of Community Psychology 30, no. 6: 761-786.

Flintoff, A., & Scranton, S. 2006. Girls and physical education. In D. Kirk, D. Macdonald, & M. O’Sullivan (Eds.), The handbook of physical education (pp. 767-783). London, UK: Sage

Gorely, Trish, Rachel Sandford, Rebecca Duncombe, Hayley Musson, Charlotte Edwardson, Tess Kay, and Ruth Jeanes. 2011. “Understanding psycho-social attitudes towards sport and activity in girls final research report.” Institute of Youth Sport, Loughborough.

Hartley, A. J. 1969. “Christian Socialism and Victorian Morality: The Inner Meaning of Tom Brown’s School-days.” The Dalhousie Review.

Heckman, Christopher. 2018. “The Effect of Mindfulness and Meditation in Sports Performance.”

Hellison, Don. 2011 Teaching responsibility through physical activity. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Kahan, David, Kent A. Lorenz, Eyad Kawwa, and Andrew Rioveros. 2019. “Changes in school-day step counts during a physical activity for Lent intervention: a cluster randomized crossover trial of the Savior’s Sandals.” BMC public health 19, no. 1: 141.

Kark, Jeremy D., Galia Shemi, Yechiel Friedlander, Oz Martin, Orly Manor, and Solomon Hillel Blondheim. 1996. “Does religious observance promote health? mortality in secular vs religious kibbutzim in Israel.” American Journal of Public Health 86, no. 3: 341-346.

Koenig, Harold, Dana King, and Verna B. Carson. 2012. Handbook of religion and health. Oup Usa.

MacDonald, Doune, and David Kirk. 1999. “Pedagogy, the body and Christian identity.” Sport, Education and Society 4, no. 2: 131-142.

McLeod, Hugh, Nils Martinius Justvik, and Rob Hess. 2018. “Sport and Christianity: Historical Perspectives–An Introduction.” 1-8.

Millikan, Matthew. 2006. “The muscular Christian ethos in post-second world war American liberalism: Women in Outward Bound 1962–1975.” The International Journal of the History of Sport 23, no. 5: 838-855.

National Physical Activity Plan Alliance. 2016. “National physical activity plan.” Retrieved from

Newsome, David. 1961. “Godliness and good learning: Four studies on a Victorian ideal.” Murray.

Pennington, Colin G. Forthcoming. “Promoting Youth Physical Activity Using the Transtheoretical Model of Behavioral Change.” Health, Nutrition, Exercise Science.

Pennington, Colin G. 2019. “Sport Education and Physical Activity.” International Journal of Physical Education, Fitness and Sports, 8, no. 1: 122-125.

Pennington, Colin G. 2017. “Moral Development and Sportsmanship in Physical Education and Sport.” Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance 88, no. 9: 36-42.

Pennington Colin G. and Larry Nelson. Forthcoming. “Physical Activity Contribution of a Modified “Dancing Classrooms” Pilot on Middle School Students Using Accelerometer Technology and Heart Rate Telemetry.” The Physical Educator.

Pennington, Colin G., and Oleg A. Sinelnikov. 2018. “Using Sport Education to Promote Social Development in Physical Education: Column Editor: K. Andrew R. Richards.” Strategies 31, no. 6: 50-52.

Putney, Clifford. 2009. Muscular Christianity: Manhood and sports in protestant America, 1880-1920. Harvard University Press.

Redmond, Gerald. 1978. “The First Tom Brown’s Schooldays: Origins and Evolution of “Muscular Christianity” in Children’s Literature, 1762–1857.” Quest 30, no. 1: 4-18.

Roberts, Keith A., and David Yamane. 2011. Religion in sociological perspective. Sage Publications.

Robinson, Daniel B. 2019. “Religion as an other(ed) identity within physical education: A scoping review of relevant literature and suggestions for practice and inquiry.” European Physical Education Review 25, no. 2: 491-511.

Sallis, James F., Thomas L. McKenzie, Michael W. Beets, Aaron Beighle, Heather Erwin, and Sarah Lee. 2012. “Physical education’s role in public health: Steps forward and backward over 20 years and HOPE for the future.” Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport 83, no. 2: 125-135.

Sporting Equals. 2012. Issues for Sport and Physical Activity Factsheet – Christianity. London: Sporting Equals.

Stoll, Sharon Kay, and Jennifer M. Beller. 1993. “The effect of a longitudinal teaching methodology and classroom environment on both cognitive and behavioral moral development.”

Trost, Stewart G., Rebecca Tang, and Paul D. Loprinzi. 2009. “Feasibility and efficacy of a church-based intervention to promote physical activity in children.” Journal of Physical Activity and Health 6, no. 6: 741-749.

VanderWeele, Tyler J. 2017. “Physical activity and physical and mental well-being in church settings.” 1023-1024.

Watson, Nick J., Stuart Weir, and Stephen Friend. 2005. “The development of muscular Christianity in Victorian Britain and beyond.” Journal of religion and society. 7.

Webb, Benjamin, Melissa Bopp, and Elizabeth A. Fallon. 2013. “A qualitative study of faith leaders’ perceptions of health and wellness.” Journal of religion and health 52, no. 1: 235-246.

Webster, Collin Andrew, David F. Stodden, Russell L. Carson, Catherine Egan, and Danielle Nesbitt. 2016. “Integrative public health-aligned physical education and implications for the professional preparation of future teachers and teacher educators/researchers in the field.” Quest 68, no. 4: 457-474.

Whisenant, Debra, Cyndi Cortes, and John Hill. 2014. “Is faith-based health promotion effective? Results from two programs.” Journal of Christian Nursing 31, no. 3: 188-193.

Wilmot S, Martinez E, He M. 2018. “Hispanic church attending youth’s perceptions of healthy bodyweight promotion in faith-based community”. Journal of Child Obesity, 3(1).

Winn, William E. 1960. “Tom Brown’s schooldays and the development of “Muscular Christianity”.” Church History 29, no. 1: 64-73.

Wingerd, Daryl. 2014. The Value of Physical Fitness for the Christian. Retrieved March 6, 2019, from

Zhang, Huijie, Fan Hong, and Fuhua Huang. 2018. “Cultural Imperialism, Nationalism, and the Modernization of Physical Education and Sport in China, 1840–1949.” The International Journal of the History of Sport 35, no. 1: 43-60.




Author Bio: Colin G. Pennington (PhD) is an Assistant Professor of Kinesiology at Tarleton State University where he works with Exercise Science majors and carries out research on physical education teacher effectiveness and other pedagogical and health-related applications of the kinesiology sub-disciplines. Colin currently teaches courses including Physiology of Exercise, Anatomical Kinesiology, Capstone in Kinesiology, and formally a number of courses within the sport pedagogy sub-discipline of kinesiology. His interests and research focus on teacher socialization, physical education teacher training, character development programs within physical education and sport, and health and wellness.