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Get Physical

How to strengthen your abs as well as your marriage

You there. Yeah, you. Flopped on the couch, watching some ESPN workout show. Telling your spouse, "Y'know, we oughta get in shape one of these days. … Got any more of those Ho-Hos?"

Your body is a temple, and the Philistines have moved in. You feel tired most of the time. Maybe you've put on a few pounds. You know this, of course, but any thought of getting physically fit merely reminds you of how busy you already are. Exercise? Only if you could quit your job.

Ten-hut!

What if we told you some ways to get more exercise, feel better, improve your communication as husband and wife and maybe even improve your spiritual life?

What if you didn't have to buy the "Abs of Granite" video, or some exercise contraption that looks like a medieval torture device? What if it took less time than you probably spend watching TV in a week? What if we threw in a set of Ginsu knives?

Here's a hint—one you won't hear from some celebrity hawking the Ultra Gut Buster. Get a pen. You should write this down.

Walk.

For starters, it's that simple. About three times a week (and a bit more if your goal is weight loss), put on some good shoes and walk at a brisk pace.

Think more about posture than speed at first, advises Susie Kania, an exercise physiologist and program director at Cooper Wellness Center in Dallas.

"Just start out with a time you're both comfortable with—maybe 15, 20, 30 minutes," she says. "Add to that after a week or two, and just make it a part of your routine—maybe three to five times per week."

Work your way up to at least thirty minutes each time. Short, quick strides will quicken your pace, Kania says. How fast should you go? Researchers suggest that fit adults should be able to walk about two miles in thirty minutes.

As you develop this habit, you'll also look forward to breaking away from life's little distractions and enjoying one-on-one time with your spouse.

Jim Maxwell, author of the new book, Body and Soul: Walking with God to Total Health (New Hope Publishers), says that's an often overlooked exercise benefit for couples.

"Remember the old saying, 'The family that prays together stays together?' Another one that's equally valid is 'The couple that walks together talks together,'" Maxwell says.

"Just going for a long walk alone gives you time for spiritual reflection and prayer," he adds. "Going for a long walk with your spouse gives you a great deal of time just for one-on-one talk without interruptions. You can share, you can communicate, and that builds a real closeness."

Stormie Omartian, author of the best-selling book, The Power of a Praying Wife (Harvest House) and several fitness videos, has seen her own twenty-seven-year marriage benefit as she and her husband, Michael, exercise regularly.

"You relate to each other better and you relate to the world better when you're in shape—and you feel better," Omartian says. "It just gives you a high when you're feeling healthy. You're much more prone to have a sense of joy and anticipation about life and about each other."

Get Real

Still with us? Or are you are snickering and saying to each other, "Yeah, right. We'll just put the kids up for adoption and retire early so we can exercise."

Put the phone down. Kids or not, demanding jobs or not, you find time every week for other important tasks, right?

"It's got to be a priority, or it's not going to happen," says Jim Angel, chair of the exercise science and sports medicine department at Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama. "It's like your quiet time or prayer. Unless it's a priority, you're going to find a hundred other things that will take its place."

"Take your datebook and make an appointment with yourselves and write it in there," he adds. "And, unless there's an emergency, that's what you're going to be doing at that particular point in time. You don't make other appointments then; you don't schedule other things in."

Along with the added accountability, keeping a datebook can bring a sense of satisfaction. "At the end of each week you can look back and see if you're staying on track and doing what you want to do," Kania says.

If you have young children, there are several options: Use jog strollers and take the kids with you. Buy a treadmill. Pay a baby sitter, or join a fitness center that offers child care. If all of those prove too expensive, take turns walking. That may not be the ultimate communication builder, but at least it gives you a shared experience as you improve your fitness.

What about Paul?

Some of you by now have reached for a Bible, being careful not to strain anything, and found 1 Timothy 4:8—"For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come."

Which begs the question: Won't we slip spiritually if we spend all this time exercising when we could be praying? Omartian has discovered the opposite.

"What we've found true for us and a lot of people is, when you're physically disciplined, you find it easier to be spiritually disciplined," she says. "One affects the other. When I am really taking care of myself and exercising and eating right and doing all the things I know to do, I am much more prone to be spiritually disciplined as far as spending time with the Lord and in the Word.

"You feel better. You can get up early and spend time with the Lord. You're not dragging. It makes such a difference to have that kind of energy to plan your life out."

It's all about finding a balance, Omartian believes. Of course the spiritual side is more important. "But you can't neglect the physical either, because it really affects who you are here on earth," she says. "It affects the time you spend with your family and with your friends and with people you minister to. I look at taking care of my body as part of what I do for the Lord."

Maxwell maintains that you can accomplish both physical and spiritual disciplines at once. His book focuses on using fitness walking as a way of finding time with God.

"I'll take a Scripture verse, something that's good to reflect on," he says. "I put them on cards. When I get ready to go walk in the morning I pick up a card. As I start walking I read that verse and just start reflecting on what it means. Thinking through that and reflecting on it is a natural stepping stone into prayer."

Other mornings are less formal. "I'll just start walking and say, 'Good morning, God,' and off we go."

Join the Club

So we've established that walking's great, physically and maybe even spiritually. But maybe you live in an area where it just isn't practical.

Maybe it bores you. Or maybe you want something more vigorous. There are more forms of exercise than one person could ever try. The key, Kania says, is to find something you enjoy doing that gives you the benefit you want: increased strength or flexibility, weight loss, or just a general sense of feeling better. If you absolutely hate to run, you won't stick with a running program, no matter how good it is for you.

If you want to lift weights, do aerobics, or use sophisticated exercise equipment, fitness centers are great because trainers will help you make sure you're doing the exercises correctly and safely. And, a fitness center may give you the motivation and discipline you can't find at home. Ask anyone who's ever bought an exercise contraption off of a TV infomercial and then put it in a garage sale three months later.

"They could probably invest that money in a good fitness club and have better adherence to a program," Angel says. "If you've paid your membership dues, you're more likely to do it than if you're just going to go out and walk on your own. It varies by person, but I think most people need to be in some sort of a structured program."

If your goals or athletic abilities as husband and wife differ significantly, a fitness center might be a good choice, Kania adds. For instance, one partner can use cardiovascular equipment while the other does strength training. You're still spending time together, but the exercise is geared to each individual.

All of which isn't to say that the two of you can't develop and maintain a structured exercise program at home, be it walking or something more advanced. Just know that the experts warn that you'll need to develop good discipline together if you're going to stick with it.

This Is not a Competition . . . Is it?

Be aware, too, of one potential side effect from exercising together: It may stir competitive juices. Depending on your attitude and abilities, that either can be a real de-motivator or a fun part of your routine.

Greg and Beth Froese of suburban Chicago have been running together since before they were married 11 years ago. She's a doctor; he's an accountant.

Friends might call what they do racing … even as they've taken to running separately more since the birth of their third child.

"Even though some people might see that as adversarial, actually it's been kind of fun to have a tiny bit of competition here and there," Beth says. "You always sort of egg each other on a little bit, and that's fun."

If one runs a certain distance in a certain time, the other soon hears about it. "I can stick with him on the distance," Beth says. "It's the time that he can usually get me on."

The friendly competition even extends to the treadmill that the couple purchased recently for their basement, so they could keep running throughout the harsh Midwestern winters.

"Even though we obviously can't run on the treadmill at the same time," Greg says, "it's easy for me to come up and report how many calories I had just burned and what my total distance was. So then Beth goes marching down and I can hear her trucking away down there."

Kania agrees that exercising as husband and wife fosters accountability, if not out-and-out competition. "It just makes it a lot easier to keep your program going," she says. "If you know your spouse is doing their exercises that day, you're going to be more likely to do yours, too."

Remember that as your exercise intensity increases, the communication between spouses decreases. Heartfelt conversations between soulmates generally don't occur while swimming or kickboxing. That's okay if your primary goal is fitness. Just don't set false expectations. If your priority is communicating, then your best choice may be walking—at a pace quick enough to benefit you both physically, but not so quick that you can't carry on a conversation.

Finally, Angel reminds, don't expect more from an exercise program than it can yield. "Exercise is a good short-term stress reliever," he says, "but if there's a stressor, it doesn't solve that stressor. If it's something in the marriage, it can be discussed at that time in a neutral arena, so to speak. Generally, you don't walk outside and yell at each other. So it can be a time of controlled disagreement."

And maybe it puts you on the road (literally) to resolving issues, small or large, that threaten your intimacy with each other. Exercise can be a great relief valve.

"When we are exercising," Beth Froese says, "I think it makes our marriage experience a little richer, because it gives us more to talk about. When we don't have it, I don't think our marriage suffers per se, but it's just a fun thing to share. We develop some memories and some good experiences together."

There. Feel motivated? Turn off the TV and talk with your spouse, today, about the most realistic way to get fit together. Then do it. Don't make us get the Gut Buster.

Jim Killam lives in Poplar Grove, Illinois, and teaches journalism at Northern Illinois University.

Seven Commandments of Exercise

Adapted from an interview with Susie Kania of the Cooper Wellness Center in Dallas.

  1. Know thyself. If you're starting from nothing, get a physical exam first. Especially if you're a woman over fifty or a man over forty. And don't worry if things go slowly at first. Everybody starts at a different level.
  2. Thou shalt not wear wingtips. If you're going to walk, wear quality shoes. "People don't always see that as important and they'll go out and walk in whatever they have. … If your feet and legs hurt, then it's hard to exercise."
  3. Throw off everything that hinders. Don't carry hand weights when you walk. "That has a tendency to throw off the biomechanics and you might end up getting injured. I recommend doing strength training at a separate time."
  4. Rome didn't lose twenty-five pounds in a day. "You're not going to accomplish in two weeks what you've undone in the last two years." Start slowly and progress slowly, so you can exercise without hurting yourself. "If you get an injury when you're starting an exercise program, that's very discouraging. You'll get frustrated and probably won't do anything again for a while."
  5. Thou shalt try something new. "Put some variety in your exercise program. Vary your exercises or classes. Try new things—cycling, kickboxing, whatever. Make it enjoyable so you look forward to it."
  6. Thou shalt kick it up a notch. "As you progress and get more fit, you need to continue to challenge yourself, so that you don't get in a rut." In other words, your body gets used to the level you're at. Until you reach your desired plateau, keep challenging yourself—slowly but surely.
  7. Flee the elevator. "Look for opportunities for activity as you go throughout each day. Look for the hard way to do things instead of the easy way." In other words, take the stairs. Park farther away from the office.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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