Can Faith Improve Your Fitness Performance?

In every field of achievers you’ll find people thanking spirituality for success. But is there concrete evidence that supporting faith, with its accompanying calm, makes you healthier and more able to perform? If so, what can we learn from it? TRAIN investigates.

It’s the post-match interview, and the athlete who’s just scored the winning goal, thrown the knockout punch or created a world record time gets a microphone shoved in their face. There’s usually some catch-all question about how it feels to be the new [insert success here] and, before any of the usual stuff about teamwork or perseverance, comes the answer that is guaranteed to make half of the audience groan: “first of all, i’d like to thank god…”

It can sound odd, especially to an atheist. After all, does God really care about the trivialities of who wins a World Cup? Does He or She enjoy watching fighters get knocked out in a cage? Doesn’t any of the losing team believe in the same higher power? Of course that’s missing the point. To believers, the hand of God touches everything they do. Even if they’ve put in the hours at the gym themselves, they’ve been blessed with the physical gifts, talent or mental strength to make it to the top. Maybe it is their belief itself that gives them the focus to perform at the very highest levels. If that’s the case, are there things that everyone can learn from them, even if we’re not aspiring to compete in the Octagon or the Super Bowl? Keep reading to find out what kind of belief can make you a better athlete.

 

Unseen factors

Of course, it’s tricky to study the effects of religion, spirituality or faith on health and fitness for a number of reasons. Most studies on the subject are retrospective, asking people to assess their own religiosity via objective measures, such as how often they pray or attend religious services. Many of them are the sort of things that people are notoriously bad at remembering or reporting.

There’s also the issue that religion can encompass a huge amount of different factors, many of them overlapping. So, of course, can health. Even more importantly, it’s impossible to ‘assign’ subjects to different groups to do controlled experiments. After all, you can’t tell someone to become an atheist to help their blood pressure any more than you can convince them to start believing in God to help them sink three-pointers.

Finally, in wide-scale studies, it’s tricky to account for the positive effects of being part of a religious community full of good role models, social support, social capital and (usually) less smoking, drinking and dangerous behaviour. That’s why, even though there are thousands of studies on the beneficial effects of religion, precious few of them are worth paying attention to.

Even so, there’s enough concrete evidence to suggest that, yes, there are proven physical and psychological benefits to simply believing in a higher power. For instance, a study in the Journal of The National Medical Association found that group weight-loss programs are more likely to be efficacious if the program meets in a church and if they have less past experience with weight loss.

For many believers, for instance, religion is a source of optimism, promoting a sense of togetherness and belonging. In a tradition with clear ‘rules,’ it can also provide the comfort of an explanation for when things go wrong, even in terrible situations, points out Stanford University biologist Robert Sapolsky: “There is the opportunity to reframe the event… God has entrusted you with a burden that he can’t entrust to just anyone.”

Religion can also offer a powerful sense of self-worth because – in many traditions – God’s love is seen as unconditional, while ‘earthly’ sources of self-esteem, such as including six pack abs and sporting ability, are more fleeting. If all that does is makes you live a happier, more gratitude-filled life, it could make a huge difference to health.

 

Forgive and forget

There are also benefits to the more tolerant mindset that comes with many forms of spirituality. Take forgiveness: in a study done by researchers at Michigan’s Hope College, about 70 undergraduates repeatedly imagined actual situations in which they either forgave a wrongdoer, nursed a grudge and plotted revenge, or tried to feel empathy with the offenders.

The researchers measured the students’ facial muscle tension, amount of sweating, heart rate, and blood pressure through electrodes placed onto their skin. The results were surprising; not only did the participants rate situations where they were less forgiving as more depressing, but the researchers discovered that physiological activity was substantially higher when the students imaged situations in which they were unforgiving.

More recently, a new study published in the Journal of Health Psychology looked at the effects of lifetime stress on mental health, and how forgiving people fared compared to those who weren’t so forgiving. Unsurprisingly, people with greater exposure to stress over their lifetimes had worse mental and physical health, which would have a knock on effect on their overall exercise performance. The researchers also discovered that if people were highly forgiving of both themselves and others, that characteristic alone virtually eliminated the connection between stress and mental illness.

The negative effects of stress, in fact, form a huge part of why spirituality has such a positive aspect on so many aspects of health and athletic performance. Our bodies are largely evolved to work well with short, infrequent bursts of stress: the same type that you’d get when running away from a predator, say, or chasing after a meal. A lot of modern maladies are related to more chronic stresses: the kinds that come from long commutes, financial worries or interoffice power struggles. Stress also leads to fat storage, since glucocorticoids – the hormones released in the body during long-term periods of stress – tend to stimulate fat deposition in the abdominal region, while also ruining digestion that, after all, isn’t your body’s main focus if you’re being chased by a sabretooth tiger.

By focusing on tolerance and forgiveness, accepting troubles as part of an overarching plan, with set routines that concentrate on calm and togetherness, you’re less susceptible to an array of diseases. This means that your digestion works better and your body is less inclined to hoard fat, so you’ll be in better shape outwardly and in. Of course, opponents of this idea point out that the effect can also work in reverse – when religious belief encourages long periods of worry about impure thoughts or failing to act in the ‘proper’ way, stress goes up and all of the problems mentioned above actually become heightened.

To reframe this in another way: if your spirituality makes you feel better, it will very likely doing your psychology and physiology the world of good. If it’s filling you with guilt or anxiety, it’s almost certainly making your health worse.

 

High achievers

For those operating in the top echelons of sport, of course, religion isn’t just a way of coping with anxiety, but a way to let go and focus high-level play. According to a study conducted by Jeong-Keun Park of Seoul University, prayer – at least for Korean athletes – isn’t just a key coping factor, but can also help peak performance. “I always prepared my game with prayer,” said one of Park’s participants. “I committed all things to God, without worry. These prayers make me calmer and more secure, and I forget the fear of losing. It resulted in good play.”

By ditching anxiety, psychologists theorise, athletes enhance their ability to play or perform more ‘in the moment’ – though it isn’t always necessary to believe in a supreme being to get there. Now consider flow: the name researchers now give to the state in which you’re immersed in an activity, feeling energised and enjoying the process. It was named by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970s.

He described it as: “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake…[where] you’re using your skills to the utmost,” but he wasn’t the first man to identify the concept, or try to harness it as a method of personal development. Zen Buddhism – which helps to form the roots of several Japanese martial arts, such as judo, kendo and aikido – has serious parallels with the flow state, including the idea of ‘control without controlling,’ or being secure and relaxed at the same time.

Steven Kotler, a journalist and entrepreneur involved in mapping the ‘genome’ of flow, points out that extreme sports athletes like skiers and surfers are constantly chasing this heightened state, without necessarily having the same name for it. It’s easiest to attain in high-risk sports that demand total focus, but all athletes experience it, claims Kotler.

“Flow is an optimal state of consciousness, when you feel and perform your best,” he explains. “It’s the moment of total absorption. Time speeds up or slows down like a freeze-frame effect. Mental and physical abilities go through roof, and the brain takes in more information per second, processing it more deeply.” Mindfulness and meditation, says Kotler, can make it easier to enter the flow state, which demands total attention to the present moment. This isn’t just conjecture because research at Texas Tech University found that meditation significantly improves attention, memory, creativity, immune function and healthy habits, while drastically reducing stress. If you’re making fast decisions in a sport where the stakes are high, you might have more in common with a Buddhist monk’s belief systems than you realise. It’s this singular focus that’s the cornerstone of sporting success.

Forward thinking

So what good is all this to you? After all, you can’t choose to believe something that you don’t, just to help your health and performance. Even if you were prepared to do it, the effects don’t work that way. Your beliefs have probably formed over years, or decades, with the influence of friends, family and your community. This means that they’re unlikely to change easily, even if you suddenly decide to become a pro sportsman or want abs that could seduce a nun. But do they have to?

If there’s anything the research on spirituality as it relates to health and performance teaches us, it’s that the effects don’t come from a higher power, but from what you’ve already got deep inside of you. Mindfulness and meditation, of course, aren’t exclusive to Buddhism or Eastern religions, any more than silent contemplation is the sole preserve of Capuchin monks. Being kinder, more empathetic, quicker to forgive and less inclined to hold grudges will help every exerciser, whether they’re religious or not.

And, of course, the flip side is also true: no matter how fervently you trust in your belief system, filling yourself with hatred and bitterness will only hurt you, both through your ability to focus and your elevated stress levels. Remember: holding a grudge is like swallowing rat poison and expecting the rat to die. There is a very real and simple message from all the research on religion: be nice to people. Socialize if you can, but make time to sit and think things through on your own, even if it’s only for a few minutes a day.

Be optimistic when you can, and don’t try to control things you can’t. Act to other people like you’d want them to act towards you, and try your best. It doesn’t matter what you believe, as your life, health and performance will be better if you’re positive.

Find health and fitness advice and more in every issue of TRAIN magazine.

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