The Attributes of Physical Fitness and Faith: Exercise Science Meets Scripture
Marc Apkarian, PhD
Associate Professor, Biola University, La Mirada, CA
Abstract: In the discipline of exercise science, the attributes of physical fitness lie in the domains of cardiorespiratory endurance, muscular endurance, muscular strength, body composition, and flexibility. If combined conceptually, most commonly performed categories of exercise among the general population could be identified as muscular strength, cardiorespiratory endurance, and flexibility, or simply strength, endurance, and flexibility. In scientific understanding, muscular strength is usually inclusive of maximum ability, as the maximal force that muscles can generate. Cardiorespiratory endurance has a continuous nature, as the ability of lungs, heart, and blood vessels to deliver oxygen adequately to tissue and cells to sustain prolonged physical activity. Flexibility follows unimpeded movement, whereby the body’s joints can move through a full range of motion. In spiritual terms, strength, endurance, and flexibility also can be seen to possess great significance in Christian faith. At times, a Christian needs to stay firm in convictions and be strong, as Ephesians 6:10 exhorts one to do. In other circumstances, the challenges of life require patience and endurance, as referenced in James 1:3. Being yielded to various ways God leads one’s life as a believer, or being flexible, is also an important aspect of behaviour, as illustrated in James 4:13-15. Unlike physical training, the development of spiritual strength, endurance, and flexibility is not necessarily a guided, strategic endeavour, often occurring in response to circumstances outside the control of an individual, though it could be a deliberate pursuit as well. Strength, endurance, and flexibility are robust, dynamic attributes of significance in physical fitness and in the Christian faith, with manifold illustrations in exhortations, biblical directives, experiences of those in scripture, and in the life of Christ.
Keywords: Strength, Endurance, Flexibility, Training.
Statement of Original Unpublished Work: By submitting this document to the Editor in Chief of CJSCF, I am making a Statement of Original Unpublished Work not submitted to another journal for publication.
In the disciplines of exercise science and kinesiology, physical fitness has been a construct of significance for well over a century. The study of physical fitness and its assessment dates back to the pioneering work of researchers in the late 1800s and early 1900s, even gaining political attention when President Dwight D. Eisenhower created the President’s Council on Youth Fitness in 1956 (Institute of Medicine 2012). Over time, definitions of physical fitness have also been created, such as “the ability to carry out daily tasks with vigor and alertness, without undue fatigue and with ample energy to enjoy leisure-time pursuits and to meet unforeseen emergencies” (President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports 1971).
While such a description of physical fitness is broad and holistic, its wide scope led to further distinction between health-related physical fitness as of importance for all people, and skill-related physical fitness as of predominant interest for athletes (Pate 1983). Moreover, physical activity has been identified distinctly from exercise (which specifically confers physical fitness), in that physical activity is broadly inclusive of all forms of human movement performed by an individual, including daily activities, while exercise is a subset of physical activity, being performed in a structured and deliberate fashion (Caspersen, Powell, and Christenson 1985). The goal of this discussion is to utilize the construct of health-related physical fitness as physical fitness, with its broad applicability to the physical health of the general public, and relate its attributes with spiritual parallels and principles of significance in Christian faith.
Characterizing the Attributes
The components, or attributes, of physical fitness classified within the arena of health-related physical fitness have been identified as encompassing the domains of cardiorespiratory endurance, muscular endurance, muscular strength, body composition, and flexibility (Caspersen, Powell, and Christenson 1985). While other components of fitness could be distinguished as well, such as those related to physical skill (e.g., for instance, agility or balance), these five attributes have received the greatest attention in scientific study, given their fundamental importance and relationships with the physical health of individuals. Of the five, many commonly performed exercises and training programs for general health and fitness tend to involve three of them specifically – muscular strength, cardiorespiratory endurance, and flexibility development. These distinct domains have been defined scientifically by various authors as follows.
Strength. Muscular strength, commonly referenced with the inclusion of maximum capability, is defined as “the maximal force that a muscle or muscle group can generate” (Kenney, Wilmore, and Costill 2020, 228).
Endurance. Cardiorespiratory endurance is by nature continuous, and is defined as “the ability of the lungs, heart, and blood vessels to deliver adequate amounts of oxygen to the cells to meet the demands of prolonged physical activity” (Hoeger et al. 2019, 37).
Flexibility. Flexibility has complete, unhindered movement as its central concept, and is defined as “the ability of joints to move through their full range of motion” (Insel, Roth, and Insel 2020, 345).
Although muscular endurance appears individually among the domains, and can be distinctly developed and targeted in training, it is often enhanced alongside muscular strength or cardiorespiratory endurance training, in a “side effect-like” fashion. Additionally, the very essence of body composition, or ratio of muscle to fat tissue quantity, is related to and functionally dependent on the development of muscular strength (hypertrophy, or “muscle size”) and cardiorespiratory endurance. Thus, from these five domains of physical fitness, if body composition is disregarded as an entity due to its dependence on other physical fitness components, and the modifiers “cardiorespiratory” and “muscular” are removed as well, the terms strength, endurance, and flexibility remain. Indeed, strength, endurance, and flexibility are fundamental key attributes of physical fitness, applicable in several contexts, including general health, exercise, sport, and/or rehabilitation.
Developing the Attributes
Numerous guidelines for developing aspects of physical fitness have been created over time, endeavouring to offer specific parameters by which individuals might enhance their physical well-being. With on-going discovery about the science of exercise and its implications for physical health and well-being, the standards given for the development of strength, endurance, and flexibility have been modified according to factors such as age, prior training experience, and health status of various populations, and have appeared in numerous books, journals, and reports.
The second edition of the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) publication “The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans” is a systematic review compiling the results of extensive physical activity and health research over decades, and presents broad public health recommendations for performing physical activity among Americans of all ages (Piercy et al. 2018). The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) position stand “Quantity and Quality of Exercise for Developing and Maintaining Cardiorespiratory, Musculoskeletal, and Neuromotor Fitness in Apparently Healthy Adults: Guidance for Prescribing Exercise” is another authoritative pronouncement summarizing a wealth of physical activity and exercise science research based upon decades of studies (Garber et al. 2011). Its comprehensive collection of recommendations for various aspects of physical fitness development includes minimum thresholds or target ranges for the general population. Although the focus of this discussion is not on technical detail concerning physical fitness, a brief summary of broad recommendations for the three domains addressed herein is provided for reference.
Strength – Guidelines. Muscular strength: > 2-3 days/week; 8-15 repetitions/set; 1-4 sets; resistance training exercises for each of the major muscle groups
Endurance – Guidelines. Cardiorespiratory endurance: > 30 minutes/day; > 5 days/week; or in total, > 150 minutes/week (moderate intensity); OR > 20 minutes/day; > 3 days/week; or in total, > 75 minutes/week (vigorous intensity); continuous exercise such as running, walking, cycling, swimming
Flexibility – Guidelines. Flexibility: > 2 days/week; 10-60 seconds/exercise; flexibility exercises for each the major muscle–tendon groups
Connecting the Attributes
Having established a foundational understanding of the attributes and characteristics of physical fitness from a scientific standpoint, it can be realized that each physical fitness component – strength, endurance, and flexibility – possesses a figurative counterpart in the Christian faith. Throughout the lifetime of a Christian individual, there will be the need to remain strong in certain situations, endeavour to endure through specific experiences, and be flexible in particular circumstances. Expressed differently, a Christian may need to stay firm in convictions and actions, reflecting strength. At other times, the challenges of life require a Christian to exhibit perseverance and patience, reflecting endurance. Finally, it is important for a Christian to remain yielded to, or actively seek, various ways God may lead the course of life for a believer, reflecting flexibility.
It is intriguing to note that in a majority of cases, the attributes are involved or expressed in response to circumstances outside the control of the Christian. Strength, endurance, and flexibility are often engaged by choice – actively, intentionally, and willingly through life’s experiences, challenges, and hardships. In some instances, as with physical training, attributes develop by purposeful engagement – flexibility can be seen in seeking to be led by the Spirit of God, such as through a concerted effort to pray for wisdom, in a decision-making process. This, however, is much more of a fluid, subjective pursuit – it does not follow according to performance of minutes in a session, number of days per week, or some metric of intensity.
To that end, participation in physical activity as a means to experience spiritual activity in some regard requires an accurate understanding of how each attribute is engaged, and a sensible strategy for its engagement. For instance, strength training exercises typically involve lifting weights for a specific goal number of repetitions in a set to reach momentary failure by the end of the set. When the exercise is repeated for consecutive sets, fatigue makes it increasingly difficult to reach the goal number each time, as the developing discomfort and sensation of “burning” in the muscles requires a strong, deliberate effort and tremendous resolve to endure in order to reach the goal.
Although occurring in a completely different context, on a different scale, and with entirely less significance, the determination to “work through the pain” in order to reach the end of a set has been likened to persecution and physical suffering for the Christian faith. That is, as one considers or reflects – with all due reverence – upon the extreme suffering and pain endured in physical persecution, it may provide the psychological fortitude necessary during the painful moment of exercise for one to continue movement, persist to the end of the set, and not “give up”.
Alternatively, endurance training commonly takes the form of activities such as running, cycling, or swimming. These all share the need for dedication, perseverance, and the determination to maintain continuous, rhythmic movement until the prescribed end of the exercise timeframe is reached. Given the challenge that extended duration endurance exercise can present to the will of the exerciser, an approach to engage in meaningful spiritual activity can involve prayer. Praying before an exercise session for help to remain committed to the timeframe goal, and determining to see the session as an act of sacrificial worship, can sustain the spirit and will of an individual as they persevere through the exercise, further developing both physical and spiritual endurance.
Finally, the development of flexibility often occurs through slow movement leading to a fixed body position. When performing static stretches, it is beneficial to move into and out of stretched body positions slowly, both to avoid injury, and to ensure adequate focus is placed on the correct position attempting to be reached and maintained. In performing such stretches, a deliberate effort can be placed on being calm, breathing slowly, and minimizing movement. Doing so fosters the opportunity for a concerted effort to be made toward such things as reflective prayer, meditative thoughts on the character of God, or recalling to mind a scripture that reinforces the activity (such as a portion of Psalm 46:10 “…be still and know that I am God…”).
These spiritual attributes of strength, endurance, and flexibility are reflected in multiple contexts throughout several books of the Bible, and by various means or applications. In certain cases, they are expressed as commandments or admonitions, in others, as examples in life experiences of an individual, group, or nation, and in still others, illustrated by a story or other biblical passage.
Thus, scripture can function as an exhortation, warning, guideline, or aim in the life of a Christian. The experiences of the Israelites wandering in the desert, the writings of several Psalms, the words of Paul to the early church, and the life of Jesus all present excellent illustrations of strength, endurance, and flexibility. The scriptures which follow depict examples throughout books of the Old and New Testaments of each of these attributes (New International Version).
Strength – in Scripture
Exodus 14:14. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.
Joshua 1:9. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.
Psalm 91:1-2. Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”
Isaiah 40:30-31. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.
1 Corinthians 1:27. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.
2 Corinthians 12:9. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.
Ephesians 6:10-11. Finally, be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.
2 Timothy 4:17. But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was delivered from the lion’s mouth.
Endurance – in Scripture
Deuteronomy 2:7. The LORD your God has blessed you in all the work of your hands. He has watched over your journey through this vast wilderness. These forty years the LORD your God has been with you, and you have not lacked anything.
Joshua 5:6. The Israelites had moved about in the wilderness forty years until all the men who were of military age when they left Egypt had died, since they had not obeyed the LORD. For the LORD had sworn to them that they would not see the land he had solemnly promised their ancestors to give us, a land flowing with milk and honey.
Romans 15:4-6. For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope. May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
2 Corinthians 1:6. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer.
Colossians 1:9-12. For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of His will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to His glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of His holy people in the kingdom of light.
1 Timothy 6:11. But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.
Hebrews 12:1-2. Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before Him He endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Hebrews 12:7. Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as His children. For what children are not disciplined by their father?
James 1:2-4. Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
Flexibility – in Scripture
Genesis 12:1-4. The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran.
Exodus 13:17-18. When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of Egypt ready for battle.
Exodus 13:21-22. By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.
Psalm 5:8. Lead me, Lord, in your righteousness because of my enemies – make your way straight before me.
Psalm 27:11. Teach me your way, Lord; lead me in a straight path because of my oppressors.
Psalm 61:1-2. Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer. From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint; lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
Psalm 139:24. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
Acts 10:17-23. While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at the gate. They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there. While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three men are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.” Peter went down and said to the men, “I’m the one you’re looking for. Why have you come?” The men replied, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to ask you to come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.” Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests. The next day Peter started out with them, and some of the believers from Joppa went along.
Galatians 5:18. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
James 4:13-15. Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”
Given the examples of strength, endurance, and flexibility found in scripture that are presented above – and myriad others which could be identified throughout the Bible – the life of Jesus Christ provides a unique example. While several experiences, teachings, and words of Christ, along with many passages in the Bible, might reflect one or another of the attributes, it is difficult to identify situations or circumstances that truly require the three attributes to operate in concert with one another. However, the experience of Jesus being tempted by Satan in the wilderness presents a case unlike others, as an incredible depiction of the attributes engaged together.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days He was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them He was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’” The devil led Him up to a high place and showed Him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to Him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’” The devil led Him to Jerusalem and had Him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left Him until an opportune time (Luke 4:1-13).
As Jesus was tempted by Satan in three different circumstances, He stayed strong, and did not waver or give way to temptation. As Jesus fasted and remained in the wilderness for 40 days, He maintained endurance throughout the experience. As Jesus allowed the Spirit of God to lead Him into the challenge of the desert ahead, He remained flexible – with the additional aspect of letting Satan even lead Him to a high place to see the kingdoms of the world, and then to stand atop the highest point of the temple.
There was opportunity to engage each attribute, or not to, but Jesus made the decision to be strong, to endure, and to remain flexible. This account of what Jesus underwent is an incredible illustration that goes far beyond the realm of the usual human experience, portraying an extraordinary combination of strength, endurance, and flexibility as an example for the life grounded in faith. For the Christian, it presents the ultimate example of victorious achievement throughout adversity, and through no one better to look to than Christ Himself.
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Author Bio: Marc Apkarian (PhD) is an Associate Professor of Kinesiology at Biola University in La Mirada, CA, having been a faculty member there since 2003, and served as department chair for 12 years. His teaching specialties and involvement span the areas of exercise physiology, exercise physiology laboratory, fitness evaluation, fieldwork and internships, and exercise and health, with particular interest in Christian faith integration. Dr. Apkarian enjoys incorporating applied learning, skill acquisition, and professional development opportunities to empower students to think analytically, solve problems, and reach others, being passionate about enabling them to appreciate stewardship of health and the human body. Marc is also an American College of Sports Medicine Certified Exercise Physiologist, and National Strength and Conditioning Association Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, and has worked with individuals of all ages in contexts ranging from exercise training and athletic development to post-rehabilitation conditioning since entering the health and fitness industry in 1995. Marc and his wife enjoy time with their daughter, family, and friends, exercise, travel, and involvement in both youth and adult ministry opportunities at church.