At North Valley Kung Fu, we often observed that fitness was a universal indicator of our ability to manage ourselves. Of all the areas of life that deserve appropriate attention, one's fitness is of such import that it must receive priority in the arranging of life's activities. However, two questions should be brought to the discussion on fitness: (1) What manner of fitness are we discussing?, and (2) why is this fitness so important?
The first question as to the manner of fitness must seem a strange one. Does not everyone know that I'm speaking of physical fitness? Not so. Because of the layered complexity that is the human experience, there are many corresponding layers of fitness (or "fitnesses") that must receive due attention. I will mention three commonly discussed layers here, though more can be brought to bear. These "commonly discussed" layers are (a) the spiritual life, (b) the mental life and (c) the physical life. These three represent a good start on the subject of fitness for the "whole" person.
(1) People are spiritual entities. The Scriptures stress, more than any other subject, one's ability and responsibility to interact, with full submission, with the living God of the Bible. Humanity relinquished so much of this ability in the Fall that God must now graciously grant even the ability to respond to Him in an appropriate manner. Nonetheless, inasmuch as people are given ability by the Spirit of God, it remains their responsibility to perceive truth revealed by God, submit to His authority and obey His revealed will. The exact manner in which human responsibility and Divine empowerment intersect remains a mystery, yet the sum of its math is that we must cultivate, "exercise," and develop our ability to perceive, submit and obey. This can be called spiritual "fitness." The "exercises" associated with this fitness are found in the historic Christian disciplines of the Church. Richard Foster, in his book Celebration of Discipline, covers these very well. While it can be dangerous to prioritize aspects of the human condition, seeing that we are such an integrated complexity, spiritual fitness would deserve its place atop the list, if indeed such a list was created.
*Parenthesis - Such lists can indeed be dangerous, for they often deny how holistic a being is the human. Ancient heresies sought to separate the aspects of man to declare the spiritual life solely important to the exclusion of all others parts. This was appropriately denounced by the Church when such beliefs led people to dismiss the notion of sin, who suggested that the acts of the body were of little import if the spirit was aligned with God. Among Gnosticism's many faults was a failure to acknowledge that man's rebellion had been holistic; therefore, his redemption must be as well. Prioritizing "fitnesses" is understandable, but must not result in the compartmentalizing that we inherit from Gnosticism.
(2) Mental fitness is multifaceted. Educators would likely gravitate toward a definition that orbits intellectual rigors. Psychologists, however, would likely define this more in terms of mental/emotional "wellness." In any event, those functions of the mind that cannot be understood to be highly spiritual nor merely physical can be called the "mental life." This is one of the human "fitnesses" also. The person who is ever learning, ever processing, reflecting, thinking, asking, discovering and experiencing can be said to be mentally "fit." Such a one often reads regularly, writes reflectively and considers carefully those things that life is revealing to them. They are interesting. They have a variety of topics on which they can converse, for they are aware of the applications of those topics in the world. Mental "wellness" is pursued in how they reflect on life's lessons. They seek out and find helpful peers and/or mentors to share the journey with. Painful events are processed in a healthy manner because of how the "workout" is conducted. Mental fitness is closely integrated with spiritual fitness in more ways than can be described here. It is enough to suggests that each these "fitnesses" suffers from the neglect of the other.
(3) In a society obsessed with body shapes, acknowledging a necessity for physical fitness would seemed insultingly obvious. However, one's motivation for achieving said fitness remains the more important subject. The Scriptures speak so much of service to "one another" that the primary uses for the one's own fitness seem to be for everyone else's benefit. Because we are so fundamentally self-centered, developing an understanding of our own bodies that takes others into account is like holding back the tide. Any thoughts of physical fitness can quickly degenerate into notions of "feel fine with myself, just as I am." While a healthy self-image is indeed appropriate, and is often meant when the previous statement is spoken, it must not fail to account for how "myself, just as I am" is capable of serving others.
How is the overweight mom serving when she watches her children play from afar, but cannot join in? How is the winded and wheezing father serving who cannot play with his boys? How is the husband serving his wife who so neglects his health as to artificially increase her chances of being widowed by age 65? How is the spouse serving their beloved by ignoring their own fitness, presuming upon their husband or wife to remain attracted, ignoring it too? How is the young man or women serving the Church who cannot perform the physical demands of ministry? How is the believer serving Christ who has not cultivated sufficient fitness to escape concerns about their own health, and now can focus on others'?
These "fitnesses" (and more could be mentioned) are both important to the human experience, and integrated together. Consider how often one suffering from depression is influenced for that better by either prayer or exercise. Think of the clear head one can have for Bible study who has also worked out regularly. Imagine how satisfying physical fitness can be with the knowledge that it can bolster mental/emotional wellness and spiritual service. What we really need is not a prioritized list, but fitness for the whole person, with an eye for how it renders us more capable of blessing those we love.