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The Christian Athlete: Sports and Health

August 11, 2022 5 min read
By Dr. Luis Fernando Aragón-Vargas Professor of Human Movement Science, University of Costa Rica
Physical training

This article is the third in a series of nine on The Christian Athlete, authored by Dr. Luis Fernando Aragón-Vargas, professor of human movement science in the School of Physical Education and Sports at the University of Costa Rica.

Every Christian should care for his or her body and be healthy, to better serve God. In times like ours, when a sedentary lifestyle and multiple stressors are causing serious problems to a large percentage of the population, recreational and competitive sports play a very important role, providing the necessary distractions and physical stimuli to prevent cardiovascular disease, lower back problems, obesity, and other maladies. Are you, as an athlete, immune to these problems? Do you really know what to eat and how to care for your body? Should you worry about these things? There is ample information from the exercise sciences which you most likely know or could easily find; meanwhile, that information can be expanded with some Christian perspectives.

First: excessive training and being obsessed about victory are serious threats to an athlete’s health. Finding the right balance between moderation and pushing yourself to the limit remains one of the main challenges in competitive sports (I am sure you can think of one or two athletes at each one of those extremes). Do we find any advice about this in the Bible or from the Church?

The Book of Ecclesiasticus (Sirach), also called the Wisdom of Ben Sira, says that being healthy and physically fit is a good thing:

“You are better off to be poor and healthy and fit
than to be rich and tormented in one’s body.
Health and fitness are better than gold,
and a strong body is better than countless riches.
There is no treasure to compare with health of body
and no happiness to surpass a joyful heart” (Sirach 30:14-16, NCB).
St. Clement of Alexandria, in his work called Paedagogus (Pedagogue) from the year 200, spoke positively of gymnastics, recommended physical exercise both for spiritual and physical health, specifically encouraged women to exercise vigorously and, in general, stated that everyone should exercise in moderation. These recommendations agree with modern exercise physiology and psychology. When Pope Francis addressed the Italian Tennis Federation in 2015, he told them: “The sport you practice is very competitive, but the pressure to get significant results should never lead you to take shortcuts such as doping.”

Second: it is not just athletes who should find the right balance between athletic success and health in competitive sports; all Christians should aim for a healthy life. In this regard, the Second Vatican Council offers guidelines regarding the Catholic Church’s vision on participation in sports activities:

“With the more or less generalized reduction of working hours, the leisure time of most men has increased. May this leisure be used properly to relax, to fortify the health of soul and body through spontaneous study and activity, through tourism which refines man's character and enriches him with understanding of others, through sports activity which helps to preserve equilibrium of spirit even in the community, and to establish fraternal relations among men of all conditions, nations and races” (Gaudium et Spes, 61).
Third: being an athlete is a significant challenge. The kind of patience and perseverance it takes to practice day in and day out for years in pursuit of a goal, often without immediate reward, requires uncommon determination. The genuine athlete plays by the rules in order to achieve his or her goal. Similarly, it is not easy to be a Christian. The kind of righteousness and perseverance it takes to follow Christ to the end is possible for us only by God’s grace. So both the Christian and the athlete know very well what it means to struggle patiently now, in order to be glorified later. They each know how to live wholeheartedly for a goal. Paul compares the Christian life to a race, but with a better prize in the end:
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (1 Corinthians. 9:24-27, NIV).
To sum up, the Christian athlete will find several advantages in practicing sports. When pursued in a regular, disciplined way, it helps build the kind of character aimed at by Christians, and helps to care for the body the way God wants us to.

We are our bodies, and we are our souls, loved by God as a whole human person. Christian athletes should care for their bodies, but they should keep in mind that physical health is not the supreme good. Being an athlete, even an extremely successful athlete, is not who we are, it is only what we do.

To view the complete series with full citations as hosted by the University of Costa Rica, click here.


Next: Sports as a Tool

Christian athletes are often taught that their Christianity should help them be better athletes - but perhaps it's better to look at sport as a tool for becoming better Christians.

Sports as a Tool
World Cup trophy on a field

Previous: Me, an Idolater?

Nobody needs another idol: young people need leaders, role models, examples of human virtue. They need the true God.

Me, an Idolater?

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