Keeping Physically Fit
September 1972

“Keeping Physically Fit,” Ensign, Sept. 1972, 64

Keeping Physically Fit

In ancient times the apostle Paul referred to the human body as “the temple of God,” and he indicated its importance when he said: “If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.” (1 Cor. 3:17.)

Good health is also stressed in the Book of Mormon, where God’s chosen leaders are often portrayed as men of great physical strength. For example, Nephi describes himself as “being a man large in stature, and also having received much strength of the Lord.” (1 Ne. 4:31.) The brother of Jared was also described as being “a large and mighty man, and a man highly favored of the Lord.” (Ether 1:34.)

If God’s spiritual laws are obeyed, according to Isaiah, good health and physical strength will result: “… they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” (Isa. 40:31.)

There is a fundamental law that the tissue of the human body will waste away through idleness and disuse. Conversely, muscles and vessels that are stressed grow and increase in capacity. This same basic law also applies to man’s spiritual growth and his mental capacity, and progress and growth in either of these areas can be achieved only by continual nourishment and effort in day-to-day living.

Not only are all three areas—physical, spiritual, intellectual—governed by these same laws, but they also seem to be inseparable in that one cannot reach his loftiest potential without the support and strength of the others. Many members of the Church have developed themselves spiritually and intellectually, but they are being held back because of physical unfitness.

It is not my purpose here to go into the broad and far-reaching implications of overall fitness for man, but rather to discuss in a practical way how physical fitness can help parents and leaders fulfill their callings with greater vigor, strength, and happiness.

Parenthood and leadership are measured in many dimensions, and physical fitness is vitally important for effectiveness in the following areas: physical and emotional endurance; good health to assure vitality, vigor, and enthusiasm for your work; the ability to relate favorably with your children and other youth and their energies and ideals; and the ability to live safely and effectively with stress and tension.

Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper, one of the world’s leading medical authorities on the value of exercise and physical fitness, relates a typical statement from an adult patient: “Doc, I don’t need much endurance. I work at a desk all day, and I watch television at night. I don’t exert myself any more than I have to, and I have no requirements for exerting myself. Who needs endurance?”

Dr. Cooper’s answer was, “You do. Everyone does. Surely you know the usual symptoms caused by inactivity as well as I do. Yawning at your desk, that drowsy feeling all day, falling asleep after a heavy meal, fatigue from mild exertion like climbing stairs, running for a bus, mowing the lawn or shoveling snow. You can become a social cripple, ‘too tired’ to play with the kids, ‘too tired’ to go out to dinner with the wife, ‘too tired’ to do anything except sit at your desk or watch television, and maybe you’re even getting tired doing that. And the final clincher, ‘I guess I’m getting old, Doc.’”1

The goal is not only muscular fitness, but fitness of all the oxygen-carrying systems of the body—the lungs, the heart, and the blood vessels. When these areas are fit, then we have what Dr. Cooper refers to as endurance fitness.

Emotional and physical endurance are inseparable. So-called physical fatigue can destroy personality, shorten the concentration span, and make us impatient, unable to focus on the problems at hand and incapable of expressing love, kindness, and inspiration to those we serve.

Competent medical research has shown that endurance is purely a matter of oxygen consumption, and vigorous exercise is the only way we can keep our oxygen-carrying machinery functioning at a proper level.

Sixty-two percent of all deaths in the United States in 1970 were caused by heart and circulatory ailments. And the number one killer of those with cardiac and vascular problems is an accumulation in the blood vessels of a fat-like substance called cholesterol. Recent research has shown that physical exercise can appreciably reduce the cholesterol in the bloodstream and reduce the chance of coronary dangers.

Inactivity affects the entire oxygen-delivering system of the body. When the lungs become inefficient, the heart grows weaker, the blood vessels become smaller and less pliable, the muscles lose tone, and the body generally weakens throughout, leaving it vulnerable to many illnesses and diseases.

One of the major health problems of many persons is that of obesity or overweight. This is particularly true of middle-aged and older persons.

The systems of the body all require oxygen and energy, but the main furnace that burns this fuel is the muscles of the body. When we are physically inactive, energy-giving calories are stored for future use as fat tissue, and the other systems of the body now have to carry this burden and nourish and feed these millions of extra cells. When the General Authorities advise that we store, for future use, one year’s supply of food, it is not intended that we carry the accumulation with us wherever we go.

A good exercise program can bring about a physical rehabilitation. Greater than this can be a personality rehabilitation. With this comes a new lease on life, with an improved self-image and the ability to relax and live more freely with everyday problems and stresses. These are not mere speculation; they are scientifically proven facts with predictable results.

To lead youth, you must keep ahead of them. You cannot drive them or push them from behind and really be a leader. Youth are drawn naturally to the teacher, the adviser, the bishop who can keep pace with them. How effective is the Scout leader who cannot hike with his troop or the Mia Maid teacher who is too tired to involve herself in an active program? On the other hand, young Aaronic Priesthood holders will probably enjoy longer, happier, and healthier lives if they develop good exercise habits early.

The pressure of responsibility may be a contributing factor to hypertension unless the leader can find suitable avenues for the release of these pressures. A number of years ago I took a graduate class in mental health from Dr. Leonard Himler of the University of Michigan School of Public Health, a noted psychiatrist. One day in class he stated:

“I have never in thirty-five years of practice treated a man or woman who has had a recreational hobby that involved regular large muscle exercise. And what’s more, I never will, because physical exercise provides the escape for pent-up emotional pressures. No classes in our universities compare in importance to the classes that teach people how to enjoy and partake of these necessary recreational activities.”

The stored-up tensions of a most trying day can be left in the swimming pool, on the tennis court, or on the softball or soccer field after as little as thirty minutes of vigorous play.

“Exercise contributes many positive things to both physical and emotional fitness,” says Dr. Ernest L. Wilkinson, Jr., a prominent Utah heart specialist, “and it is an antidote to the universal complaint—fatigue. It improves muscle tone and vitality and is an important factor in weight control and reducing. It helps to make you look and feel trim and improves your physical outlook. It stimulates new blood vessel growth and generally improves circulation and health.”

Thus we see vigorous exercise prescribed by the medical doctor, the psychiatrist, and the ancient apostles. But what do our latter-day leaders have to say about physical fitness? The five statements that follow emphasize the importance General Authorities have placed on physical fitness in recent times:

1. “… the condition of the body limits, largely, the expression of the spirit. The spirit speaks through the body and only as the body permits. … Hence, if the body is in poor condition from birth, man must strengthen it as the days increase; if it is strong from the beginning, he must make it stronger.”2

2. “The healthy man, who takes care of his physical being, has strength and vitality; his temple is a fit place for his spirit to reside. … It is necessary, therefore, to care for our physical bodies, and observe the laws of physical health and happiness.”3

3. “Physical well-being is not only a priceless asset to one’s self—it is also a heritage to be passed on. With good health all the activities of life are greatly enhanced. A clean mind in a healthy body enables one to render far more effective service to others. It helps one provide more vigorous leadership. It gives our every experience in life more zest and more meaning. Robust health is a noble and worthwhile attainment.”4

4. “I speak of the religious doctrine which teaches that the human body is sacred, the veritable tabernacle of the divine spirit which inhabits it and that it is a solemn duty of humankind to protect and preserve it from pollution and unnecessary wastage and weakness.”5

5. “I am grateful to understand that my physical body is an eternal, non-evil component of my eternal soul, and that I have, therefore, a duty to honor and respect and care for it, and to refrain from knowingly imposing upon it any treatment or substances deleterious to it. While I could not choose nor govern the condition of the body into which I came, I have the responsibility to give it the best care I can, and if I do not I am acting in derogation of a great gift of God.”6

Here are my own recommendations for an exercise program for Latter-day Saints, male and female, young and old. The cost in dollars is small and the time to be spent is minimal. The stumbling block will be your will power and your determination to stay with it, even when it hurts. Too many people are looking for recreation without perspiration and for physical strength without vigorous exercise.

Before going into the program, here are a few ground rules:

1. No one program will solve the needs of all. You must adapt to your age, present health condition, sex, available facilities, time, etc.

2. Get a physical examination before launching into any vigorous program. Follow your doctor’s advice about the extent of your exercising.

3. Start slowly and gradually increase your exercise over a period of many weeks. No crash program is desirable. You may have spent thirty years getting into your decrepit condition; do not try to correct it within thirty days.

4. Make it a family affair. After all, your children are the leaders of tomorrow. Do not neglect their education on fitness, as yours may have been.

5. Make it fun. To begin with, any strenuous exercise is going to hurt physically if you are grossly overweight and markedly out of shape. But stay with it until the original torture period is over, and then adopt those activities that are most enjoyable. If it isn’t pleasurable eventually, you will never continue with it.

6. This is a lifetime program. Don’t plan to get into good shape and then go back to your old sedentary way of life. You may change the activities as improved physical condition permits, but your need for exercise will never change.

7. You are competing against yourself only. Do not try to keep up with anyone else or his program. You are trying to improve yourself, not defeat your neighbor. Keep records, and measure your progress against only yourself.

8. Never run or perform to exhaustion. When you finish a workout, there should be something left. Overfatigue will defeat your whole program and can be dangerous.

9. Your workouts must be regular. If you cannot be regular, little or no fitness endurance will result. An occasional marathon of work is dangerous and foolish; it’s the steady, every day or every other day (no less than three days a week) workout that brings the desired results. If you miss a week or two, don’t try to catch up. Start easy and slow again and work up to your former regularity.

10. Watch for danger signals. Dizziness, chest pains or tightness, lightheadedness, or nausea are reasons for discontinuing the exercise program and continuing only after your doctor’s okay. One noted authority on fitness recommends that participants take their pulse rate after each workout. The pulse rate should drop below 120 within five minutes after the workout and below 100 within ten minutes. If it doesn’t, slow down—you’re overdoing it.

11. Wear loose-fitting clothes that are porous enough to allow for adequate ventilation. Don’t wear any rubberized clothing, and wear comfortable shoes with a wide cushion sole.

Activity to stimulate circulatory fitness must be vigorous enough to cause deep breathing and a rapid heart rate over a sustained period. Here again, you should confer with your doctor before beginning a program of exercising. In his book The New Aerobics, Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper outlines a point system whereby running a given distance in a certain time will accrue so many points, and thirty points each week will put you in good-to-excellent condition.

Dr. Warren R. Guild, in his book How to Keep Fit and Enjoy It, recommends measuring pulse rate and time over given distances of running, cycling, or swimming, and trying to improve your time over the same distance to see how you are doing.

Others have recommended laboratory testing to show actual chemical changes within the body. For example, one expert speaks of a 400-calorie day or a 700-calorie day. In other words, today he burned 400 calories in exercise to make room for dinner.

The general opinion is that running, cycling, swimming, walking, running in place, soccer, handball, and similar vigorous activities are the best ways to stimulate circulatory fitness, because the effort is sustained over a longer period than most activities. If you want to determine if your activity is vigorous enough, stop exercising and check your pulse. Authorities recommend a minimum rate of 150 per minute to bring about desired circulatory changes.

Running is perhaps the best exercise, because it can be done almost anywhere and anytime, and it brings the greatest amount of improvement in fitness in the least time. Since not all people can run, you may wish to try cycling or swimming. Use a variety of activities to avoid boredom, enhance enjoyment, and include more family members. If you are a golfing family, thirty-six holes won’t keep you fit, but it will help; use it along with more vigorous activity. If you are going to choose walking as an exercise, you must walk fast over long distances if you want the same results derived from jogging.

Choose your own activities, but make sure there is sustained effort that is vigorous enough to stimulate rapid breathing and heart rate, and it must be done regularly. Follow the ground rules above, and reap the blessings of living effectively and enjoyably in a world where fitness is not merely a recommendation but a necessity.

Perhaps no people on earth have a loftier estimate of the body of man than do members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We have taken pride in our standards of health and our belief that a strong body is an essential concomitant of a pure heart and a noble mind.

Are you physically fit to be (or to become) a parent and leader?


  1. Kenneth H. Cooper, The New Aerobics (New York: M. Evans and Company, Inc., 1968), p. 11.

  2. John A. Widtsoe, A Rational Theology, 5th ed. (Deseret Book Company, 1967), p. 171.

  3. David O. McKay, “The Whole Man,” Era, vol. 55 (April 1952), p. 221.

  4. Ezra Taft Benson, talk given at President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s second annual Council on Physical Fitness, Cascade, Maryland, September 8, 1958.

  5. Stephen L Richards, Where Is Wisdom? (Deseret Book Company, 1955), p. 208.

  6. Marion D. Hanks, “For Man Is Spirit,” Era, vol. 61 (December 1958), p. 959.

  • Brother Robison, Regional Representative of the Council of the Twelve, is professor of health science and head track coach at Brigham Young University. He was not only a member of the U.S. 1948 Olympic team, but he has also been president of the United States Track Coaches Association and has coached fifty-six athletes to all-American honors in track.