Does Fitness Improve Self-Image?

The pursuit of health and fitness is enjoying tremendous popularity these days, which makes sense since so many people in our society are extremely unhealthy. At a second glance, however, it becomes apparent that “health” is only part of the reason so many of us are trying to eat healthier and get more exercise. One of the main driving forces of the current health movement is image. We want to look good and feel better about ourselves, and having better health promises to help us accomplish that.

At surface level, improving one’s self-image through better health is innocent and easy enough, but there are several underlying factors that make this a dangerous pursuit. For one there are two highly effective mass media campaigns that take advantage of our basic human desires but pull us in two opposite directions. On the one hand, the multi-billion dollar food industry spends millions of dollars every year on marketing campaigns and making foods that are optimal designed for human palatability (but not for health). We are hard-wired to love the taste of sweets and fats, because in creation these nutrients are almost always found in healthy forms. Corporate food companies understand the fundamentals of human taste, but take advantage of it in the cheapest and most effective ways possible; the result is cheap, attractive, and DELICIOUS food that we can’t get enough of but ends up clogging our arteries and fattening us up.

On the other hand, almost every form of media we look at uses sexual images or plays on human covetousness to sell consumer goods. We are simultaneously targeted by marketing campaigns that tell us to eat foods that satisfy our cravings (that are ultimately making us fat) and that successful women should look like Barbie and successful men like Fabio. An internal battle ensues, a war between the desires of human nature! We order our fast food, but we drink diet soda. We binge on ice cream, but we make up for it by spending three hours at the gym the next day. We submit ourselves to vicious cycles of high and lows, New Year’s resolutions and feelings of failure, bingeing and “fasting.”

In order to arrive at a balanced perspective of health, the first thing we have to do is throw off the lies of our culture and the constant temptations to compare ourselves to others. The truth is, even people who represent the “perfect” image of fitness often still struggle with self-esteem and positive self-image. Why? Because when we compare ourselves to others or the ideals of our culture we are never good enough. We are always left seeking to be like someone else, to out-do someone else, to be the most original, the most fit, etc. If a person who struggles with obesity looses excess weight, he may or may not feel better about himself when he compares himself to others.

The best way we can improve our self-image is to have a firm understanding of who we really are. At this point, things can still get messy, as most people don’t have an accurate understanding of who they are; they’ve been too busy comparing themselves to others or some random ideal. Most of us tend to underestimate ourselves, and we choose to believe something about ourselves that’s often based on misconceptions. The reality is that you are an amazing human being, intricately complex, fearfully and wonderfully made with unlimited potential. You are unique and have sometime to bring to the world that nobody else has. It is belief in these truths that should form the foundation of your self-image.

While the pursuit of fitness is important for a number of obvious reasons, improving self-image isn’t one of them. A self-image rooted in the truth about who God says we are can free us from the lies and false images of our culture and set us on a path of true health, spiritually and physically.

Originally posted 2013-03-15 04:19:00.

Your Day to Break Limits

IMG_0055Freedom – it’s a powerful word, implying limitless possibilities, empowerment, the wind blowing through your hair, the sun shining on your face, the ability to choose, to act, to take responsibility.

Today you are free, and freedom means you are fully responsible. In other words you have the freedom to respond to the voice of God. God’s word says that it is for freedom that He has set us free. Are you taking advantage of your freedom?

True, walking in freedom can be difficult; in our world it requires faith, but so often we build our own prisons. We create habits and believe lies that restrict our freedom. It’s not easy to say why we relinquish our freedoms. Maybe it’s because it’s easier, safer, more predictable to reside in our small confines. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “A ship in the harbor is safe, but that’s not where it’s meant to be.” WE WERE BORN TO EXPLORE THE OPEN SEA, to ride the waves, to explore broad horizons. Have you relinquished your dreams? Have you given up your freedoms?

I don’t care how old you are or where you are in life; today is a new day. As a human being you have the ability to choose how you will respond (you don’t just have to re-ACT to your surroundings). Even if you were physically bound in chains, you would still have the power to choose your attitude, whether to love or hate, to forgive or condemn.

Today I encourage to break limits, especially the ones you’ve set for yourself, but also the ones society has set for you. What areas do you need freedom in? What New Years Resolutions have you set for yourself? God has provided the means and grace to obtain it through Jesus. He said, “Whoever seeks to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” Luke 17:33

Originally posted 2013-01-30 20:15:00.

Body Image and Standards of Beauty

“Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”
This quote from an age-old fairy tale strikes the most common notion of beauty at its core. In this question, the antagonist, the witch, defines beauty in her comparison to others. As in the fairy tale, the question in real life isn’t “Am I beautiful?” It’s almost always “Am I beautiful compared to others?” or “Am I more attractive/desirable than others?” In other words, beauty/attractiveness is most often defined by our culture and sustained by envy or covetousness of others. Think about it, why are advertisements for various products so effective? They almost always appeal to an image that is held by our culture as ideal. We covet after an image; we want to be like that “beautiful” girl or that “manly” guy. If we purchase the product they are selling or wear the clothes they are wearing, perhaps we will be as desirable as they are.

The same is true for physical ideals of beauty and body image. We can instantly imagine the stereotypically beautiful people of our culture. If not, look no further than the toys children are given to play with, like Barbie and Ken. Yet, the standards of physical beauty implied by these images are not universal standards, nor are there any. Over time and across cultures, people have established various standards of beauty: small feet, plump women, tall skinny men, medium height muscular men, pointy teeth, large noses, the list goes on. Many people go to great lengths to conform to the culture’s standards of beauty, from unhealthy dieting to plastic surgery (this is becoming wide scale on a global level), yet doing so is vanity. It is primarily motivated by envy of others, rather than out of contentedness and thankfulness for how God made us, or out of any true standards of beauty.

The standards of our culture are unhealthy and over sexualized, and trying to obtain them can be part of a vicious cycle. There is freedom in caring more about what God thinks than what other people think. True beauty comes from inward confidence. Confidence is related to knowing who you are in Christ and being content with who you are; godliness with contentment is great gain. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that its not important to take care of yourself, to eat healthy, to exercise, and to get sunshine, but don’t do these things to conform to an ideal image — do these things to be healthy, then look however you will. One of the biggest health focuses for many is losing weight. Yet, while losing weight can be an important part of good health, beware of extremes or impure motives that can put a damper on your joy. Research has shown that it’s possible to weigh far more than the standards established by our culture and yet have an athletic level of health. Let the pursuit of physical health be for the sake of living a full life, not for the sake of vanity or out of insecurity and envy. Focus on modesty and establish an inward beauty or attractiveness, rather than superficial outward beauty. Have freedom by not conforming to the standards of this world but by being transformed by the renewing of your mind, by changing the way you think about beauty.

Originally posted 2012-02-27 16:30:00.

Measuring quality of life

Everyone wants to happy, and most probably wouldn’t mind being happier than they are right now.  Yet, happiness goes up and down with the situations of daily life.  Perhaps a better way to define a stability of happiness is “satisfaction” or “well-being.” These are the terms researchers are using to try and figure out what really gives people a high quality of life.  Traditionally, politicians and researchers have equated quality of life with quality of living, but now they’re starting to realize that these are two different things.[1]

Despite an overall high level of material well-being (plenty of food, clothes, comfortable shelter, etc), people in American and other economically wealthy countries don’t necessarily report the highest quality of life.   Quality of life isn’t solely dependent upon Maslow’s hierarchy of needs being met, it’s primarily dependent upon our perceptions of those needs being met as well as immaterial factors like meaningful relationships, social activities, and holistic health.  Surprise! Studies show that it’s possible to have a high-level of satisfaction in life and yet have a low income, a low-level of education, a severe physical handicap, few material possessions, etc.[2] In other words, quality of life is something that’s primarily subjectively, rather than objectively, determined.  

In a comparative study that gave overall quality of life ratings by country (completed by The Economist), it was found that countries with the highest ratings didn’t have the highest GDPs per person, but they did have a good balance of basic needs being met and traditional communities, like families and churches, remaining intact.  Interestingly, these same countries also had poor health ratings.[3] This is the problem of modernity: it’s solved our food security and basic material problems through the mass production of poor quality foods, but people are spending less time with family and friends, less time outside, and less time with God.  

The apostle Paul addressed a similar problem nearly 2,000 years ago when he said, “Godliness with contentment brings great gain.” -1 Timothy 6:6.  Did you know that people who regularly watch television have higher levels of dissatisfaction (thanks to the vain materialism promoted in commercials) than those who don’t?[4]  Go figure!  How many Americans do you think watch TV on a regular basis rather than spend quality time with friends or loved ones?  Quality of life isn’t dependent on what we have, it’s dependent on how we live and perceive our lives.  Thankfulness, contentedness, godliness, relationships – these are the marks of a high quality of life.

[1] The quality of quality of life measurements – JAMA
[2] Distinguishing between quality of life and health status
[3] Quality of life index – The Economist
[4] Television viewership and quality of life

Originally posted 2011-09-23 17:35:00.

The Biblical Diet?


What is a Biblical Diet? During my pursuit of optimum health and living responsibly, I’ve read about and tried a number of different diets. Many of them were extremely restrictive, difficult to follow, and overly time consuming. While they might have resulted in some added health benefits, many of them were simply fads or marketing schemes. And even if there were a few health benefits, the cost to follow the diet ultimately outweighed the benefits. What we eat is extremely important, but it should not consume our lives. If what you eat is consuming you, rather than you consuming it, it’s time to rethink your diet strategy. There is more to life than eating. The Bible teaches that the most important reality is the Kingdom of God, not this world or our physical bodies. According to Romans 14:17, “The Kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

Some of the diets I’ve tried include: vegetarian, vegan, raw, low-carb, and primal. I’ve also read about several biblically-based diets that give dietary recommendations based on the Judaic law. While everyone has differing convictions and beliefs about how to eat responsibly and healthfully, I have a few insights I’d like to share that might free some of your time and energy from trying to follow a complicated or overly restrictive diet.

Regarding the healthfulness of food in general, one of the greatest factors of health is how you perceive things. This has been demonstrated scientifically through the placebo effect. Basically, if people believe something is good for them, it often is! I think this has powerful implications when taken into consideration with the Biblical teachings of apostle Paul. He taught that our perspective plays a part in the purity of what we eat. He said, “For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.” – 1 Timothy 4:4-5

While purity and Judaic food restrictions aren’t necessarily related to health; some biblical-diet authors try to argue that they are. Yet, when taken as a whole, the laws of the Old Covenant are primarily related to ritual cleanliness and to actions that set Israel apart from other nations. After Jesus fulfilled the law, however, the requirement to abstain from particular foods was eliminated . Thus any teaching that claims abstaining from particular foods is more holy is a works-based teaching that contradicts God’s word. We are taught in the New Testament that if we receive anything with thanksgiving it is sanctified through the word of God and prayer! The heart condition of how we receive our food is more important than what we eat.

That being said, there are definitely some foods that are healthier than others, but by an large the unhealthy food are the ones that are processed and deformed through human innovation. In the beginning God granted Adam and Eve the permission to eat from every seed bearing plant. After the flood, God gave Noah and his sons the permission to eat meat as well. In other words, everything God made is ok to eat. Yet, in our Technological Age we have a new problem: industrial food. The more I read the latest nutrition research the more I find the only truly unhealthy foods are the processed ones: refined grains, refined sugar, artificial flavors and colorings, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, and trans fats. I believe the debate between researchers about whether the low-carb or the high-carb diet is more healthy exists because it isn’t so much the quantity of these nutrients that matters as much as their quality.

God designed our bodies and the foods needed to properly nourish and sustain them. Our bodies are also capable of adapting to a wide variety of diets. When people start altering what God designed, that is when we get ourselves into real trouble. The most important thing to remember when choosing foods is to eat a varied diet that consists primarily of whole foods. Also, purchase organic or chemical-free whenever possible. These principles aren’t directly taught in the Bible but are extrapolated from Biblical and human history. God made the world, and it was very good. People chose to do things their own way, and things went south.

One thing that is taught directly in the Bible, however, is the importance of love. Jesus said that love is our new command. Thus another important dietary consideration is social justice. Much of our food is grown and harvested by workers that aren’t paid a fair wage. This is especially true of luxury items like tea and coffee. While we shouldn’t do anything out of obligation or legalism, it makes sense to purchase food locally or from companies we know are treating their employees and laborers fairly. Another consideration when purchasing food is the treatment of animals. According to Proverbs a “kind man considers the welfare of his animals.” Also, Jesus said that he cares even for the sparrows. These teaching reveal God’s heart for his creation, and as his children we should care too. Many of the industrially raised animals are treated inhumanely: raised in the dark, confined to small cages, matured too rapidly, or killed in painful ways. You can help ensure animals are treated kindly by purchasing meat-products labeled “free-range” or buying locally and researching the farming practices.

Hopefully these tips and insights free you from worrying too much about what you eat. Eating healthy is simple: Eat the foods God made and avoid the foods people changed. Our tastes and likes are highly malleable Research indicates that our taste preferences are largely based on marketing strategies. You can chose what you enjoy by looking at it in a differently light. You don’t need all the extra sugar and added fat of processed foods. Resist the marketing schemes, and don’t let huge companies force unhealthy food on you. Learn to enjoy the natural flavors and textures of the foods God made. Your body will thank you as you thank the Lord!

Originally posted 2011-08-24 21:03:00.

Critique of the Lyrics in Lorde's song "Royals"

Lyrics-critique-lorde-royalsEarlier this year, the song “Royals,” written by sixteen-year-old Ella Yelich-O’Connor, reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 list. Ella, who goes by the stage name “Lorde,” is from New Zealand and is the first solo artist from her country to achieve such popularity in the United States. When Lorde’s popular song, “Royals,” first played over the airwaves of my car’s radio, I was immediately struck by Lorde’s smooth, rich vocal qualities and her song’s fresh melodic beat. At the same time, perhaps like other people, I was initially a little skeptical about the value of the song’s lyrics. At first listen, lyrics about “jet planes, islands, tigers, on a gold leash” sounded like another shallow line written by another base materialistic hip hop artist, but a closer listen reveals that “Royals” actually contains a not-so-subtle criticism of the MTV glam culture that many of today’s youth aspire to.

Read the lyrics for yourself below, with a few of my thoughts interposed after select lyrics in brackets:

Lyrics from Lorde’s “Royals”

Verse 1
I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh
I cut my teeth on wedding rings in the movies
And I’m not proud of my address,
In a torn-up town, no postcode envy

But every song’s like gold teeth, grey goose, trippin’ in the bathroom

[I love the above line and transition. It seems to say, “Really? The materialistic fantasy promoted in the media doesn’t align with how I grew up, and I’m supposed to want that?” Her choice of what to portray as representative of the pop culture (decadent gold teeth, drunkeness, drugs) highlights just how grotesque these desires are.]

Blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room,
We don’t care, we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.
But everybody’s like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece.
Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash.
We don’t care, we aren’t caught up in your love affair.
And we’ll never be royals (royals).

[Equating these desires with a love affair is a perfect metaphor for the covetous and rapturous nature of the materialistic/sex-driven nature of today’s culture. I love that she takes a stand and says that she won’t get caught up in it — I hope she won’t!]

It don’t run in our blood,
That kind of luxe just ain’t for us.
We crave a different kind of buzz.

[Yes! We were created to love life, to love freedom, to crave something different. We don’t need the “buzz” being pushed on us by pop culture, AKA Big Media]

Let me be your ruler (ruler),
You can call me queen Bee
And baby I’ll rule, I’ll rule, I’ll rule, I’ll rule.
Let me live that fantasy.

[From what I can tell, here Ella’s turning pop culture’s esteem of ruling in an air of superiority  and turning it on its head, saying “Follow me to something different. I’ll lead you to a different fantasy.”]

Verse 2
My friends and I—we’ve cracked the code.
We count our dollars on the train to the party.
And everyone who knows us knows that we’re fine with this,

[The above three lines reveals Ella’s priority: relationships. She and her friends have recognized the lie of consumerism. Instead of taking a “Benz” to the party, they’re riding in a train.]

We didn’t come for money.But every song’s like gold teeth, grey goose, trippin’ in the bathroom.
Blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room,
We don’t care, we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.
But everybody’s like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece.
Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash
We don’t care, we aren’t caught up in your love affairAnd we’ll never be royals (royals).
It don’t run in our blood
That kind of luxe just ain’t for us.
We crave a different kind of buzz.
Let me be your ruler (ruler),
You can call me queen Bee
And baby I’ll rule, I’ll rule, I’ll rule, I’ll rule.
Let me live that fantasy.

Ooh ooh oh
We’re bigger than we ever dreamed,

[The alternative to “luxe” is so much better.]

And I’m in love with being queen.
Ooh ooh oh
Life is great without a care

[So true — wealth, materialism, coveting riches — all bring bondage.]

We aren’t caught up in your love affair.

And we’ll never be royals (royals).
It don’t run in our blood
That kind of luxe just ain’t for us.
We crave a different kind of buzz
Let me be your ruler (ruler),
You can call me queen Bee
And baby I’ll rule, I’ll rule, I’ll rule, I’ll rule.
Let me live that fantasy.

Is the “fantasy” or vision Ella alludes to in “Royals” something  we can encourage other young people to pursue? From what I can tell, Ella’s lyrics contain some important truths that pose a stark contrast to the dark myths promulgated by many of today’s “artists.” The lingering question is does “Royals” really contain a thoughtful critique of culture or is it more a reflection of youthful innocence combined with teenage angst? Only time will tell, but I’ll be praying for Ella and hope that her criticism of popular culture will only deepen as she matures. Our worlds need an alternative, a healthier fantasy than the one offered by MTV.

Ella, thanks for reminding us about the vanity of materialism, that people are more important than things, and that there is an alternative to the dominant message communicated by pop culture.
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Originally posted 2013-11-01 09:48:00.

Ditch the news for a better life?

Reading the papersThere are a lot of reasons, real and imagined, that we watch and read the news. Perhaps the loftiest and most common reason given is to stay up to date on current affairs with the hope of making informed political or business decisions. A less noble reason for following the news, one most wouldn’t readily admit to, is the pure entertainment it provides. For whatever reasons we watch or read the news, its popularity is immense. The news industry is a multi billion dollar industry, and has a vast influence on the American population. It’s estimated that approximately 84% of Americans get the news every day in one form or another (PewResearch).

The question is whether or not watching the news on TV or reading it in a newspaper is really a valuable habit. Outside of providing some sort of dark and depressing entertainment that makes us feel better about the relative ease of our own lives, can it help us make better decisions? I would argue that rather than making life better or helping us gain a clearer understanding of the world, watching the news on TV or getting it from a newspaper can actually cloud our understanding and cause us to become more passive. On top of that, at least one study indicates that watching the news can be bad for our health. Read on for a few more in-depth arguments for not getting your news from popular media sources.

Watching the news prevents critical thinking: The way news is televised prevents viewers from actually having time to critically evaluate the news. Our thoughts are constantly interrupted with different news clips, streaming headlines, and commercial breaks. If were not able to think critically about the news, can it really help us make informed decisions?

A constant flow of news, whether televised or in print, prevents intentional response and leads to passivity. The information overflow and entertainment approach used by most news sources results in an endless state of “the next big thing.” Before we’ve had time to process or respond to one story, it’s already gone and the next big story is being aired. Politicians are known to use this phenomenon to sweep mistakes or unfavorable events under the rug. As long as another big story surfaces quickly enough, a less favorable story will be quickly forgotten. The tendency of news to promote passivity, rather than action, undermines one of the main arguments people make for watching the news.  Can you honestly remember the last time any news story had a real impact on your decisions?  

The news distorts our understanding of reality. While it’s generally known in this day and age that all news can’t be trusted because of propaganda and the spins that news sources are guilty of, there are greater underlying distortions that aren’t always as obvious. The amount of time and space news sources give various types of events can have a significant impact on how we perceive the importance of a topic. For example news broadcasters might direct nationwide attention to a relatively isolated hostage situation, while state-wide arsenic levels in water sources might be having a more significant impact on the welfare of most viewers.

Watching or reading the news can be bad for our health. Studies indicated the watching the news has a negative impact our our psychology, causing negative feelings, pointless stress, and possibly exacerbating depression. Why submit ourselves to this psychological torture we call “following the news” when it’s really not having any positive effects to offset the negatives?

Constant news about tragic events without the ability or opportunity to respond can cause callousness. Nothing surprises us any more; we hear or read the worst representations of humanity on a daily basis. But what do we do? How does it help us or the community in a practical way? After watching the news or reading the paper, most of us simply finish our cup of coffee and head to work, becoming that much more calloused and despairing about the conditions of the world. Instead of having an optimistic outlook or believing in the possibility of a better world, we give up hope and accept the world for how it appears in the news — messed-up.  

Meaningful alternatives for a healthier life and community: So, if we really want to stay informed, but don’t want to be sucked into the system of news propaganda, what do we do? There are a actually a number of ways to stay informed other than by watching TV or reading the paper, sources of information that can promote positive action in one’s personal life and in the surrounding community. Here are a few ideas:

  • Read a journalistic style book on a relevant or interesting topic. Books usually list verifiable sources for important facts and provide the opportunity to think about the topic being addressed.
  • Get involved in a neighborhood association
  • Attend local Board of Supervisors or City Council meetings
  • Talk to neighbors and family members, discuss what’s going on in the world and ways to problem solve
  • Use less cluttered and more meaningful news sources like scholarly journals

Using the above sources of information for current events wastes less time, is less distracting, provides more relevant news, and is more likely to foster creative and hope-filled thinking. With better information and more time to think about it, we can engage our world and focus on the things that matter. One might even see an improvement in his or her health!

Recommended reading: Propaganda by Jacques Ellul

References: PewResearch; “The Negative Psychological Effects of Watchings News on Television,” The International Journal of Behavioral Medicine
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Originally posted 2013-11-01 14:31:01.

Bringing Life to the City

bringing-life-to-the-city

Urbanization — pretty much everyone living in a developed country lives in a city. And the current estimate is that by 2030 60% of the world’s population will be living in an urban environment. It kind of makes sense right? In this day and age there are a lot of reasons to live in a city and very few reasons to live in a rural or wilderness environment. Cities offer jobs, commerce, conveniences, housing, restaurants, and entertainment of all kinds. At the same time, farming and food production have become so mechanized that it only takes a few people to raise food for everyone. Those of us who aren’t farming have to find some other type of work to do for fulfillment and survival, and most work is found in the city.

It’s not inaccurate to say that people have lived in cities for thousands of years, but the percentage of the global population living in cities in unprecedented. We are truly experiencing what can be called an “urban revolution.” 

So what does this mean for us? What does urbanization mean for people seeking to live whole, meaningful, and healthy lives? The city is a place filled with important paradoxes. Here are a few of the dangers and consequences posed by cities and urbanization:

Lots of People but Little Community — Us human beings, we need each other. We are communal beings. Real, authentic, meaning, and reciprocal relationships are vital for our health. When it comes to developing relationships, our individual selfishness is always our worst enemy, whether we live in the city or in a rural environment. The interesting thing about the city, though, is that it’s filled with people at high proximity, offering the illusion of easy community, but it often leaves people feeling even more isolated and lonely than ever.  

What is it that makes the city a place of isolation rather than community? While the answer is somewhat complex, it boils down to the intimate tie between urbanization and technology. Cities are built and shaped around human techniques, with efficiency as the goal, and people often become a mere continuation of that pattern. In the city it’s easy to become merely another cog in the machine. There are millions of people but nobody is responsible for each other. We get lost in the crowd.

Noise — The city represent the epitome of noise: unwanted, purposeless, disorganized sound. From within the city resounds a loud cacophony of anthropocentric sound. The city’s noise takes on many forms, from the contradicting propaganda emitted from shopping center speakers, to the hummings and clangings of cars and other machinery. The overwhelming presence of the city’s noise nearly downs out all sounds of nature, making us feel somehow separate and independent form the rest of creation. At the same time, we hardly have any time to listen to our own thoughts. Creativity and free thinking require concerted effort or withdrawal to rural environments. 

Pollution — The city creates an abundance of concentrated waste, a giant cesspool of filth. In the natural world what could potentially constitute waste in concentrated amounts ends up becoming fertilizer. All waste, whether decomposing trees or animal droppings, are naturally recycled and widely dispersed within the environment. When millions of people are concentrated in one place, however, the waste that results becomes toxic and difficult to recycle or properly dispose. Human sewage would be bad enough, but when you add to that all the waste that results from our technology (garbage, fumes, oil, toxins, paper, plastic, etc) even with mitigation the consequences are on the verge of catastrophic.  

Less Access to Fresh, Real Food — Historically very little food is actually grown in cities. Most of the land is covered with roads and buildings, and the water supplies are limited, so growing food is difficult to do. The city is not a self-sustaining place — it and its denizens are incredibly reliant on outside inputs for survival. As a result, most city dwellers have a difficult time coming by fresh food in the quantities that promote health. Instead, most are left to survive the best they can off of fast food and processed or pre-packaged foods.

Crime — Cities are filled with people, and people commit crimes. In any given community there will always be a few people who committed crimes against others, but in cities this natural tendency is exacerbated. Why? Well, there are two primary reasons: For one, many crimes are committed out of envy or jealousy, and more people at close proximity provides more opportunity for committing wrongs out of envy or hatred of others. Secondly, cities promise to be places of opportunity, but more often than not there aren’t actually enough opportunities (jobs) for all who live there. Before industrialization, virtually everyone was needed to raise food or was employed in some type of meaningful work, but technology changed that. Industrialization created a gaping deficit in employment opportunities, meaning more poverty, and therefore more crime. Moreover, even when technology results in the creation of new jobs, the work environments in urban settings are often unhealthy and disease promoting (think low-light, excessive sitting, monotonous movements, depression, carpal tunnel syndrome, diabetes). Dis-ease or poor health can further contribute to the cycle of poverty and crime.

Abundance of Meaningless Work — When there are jobs to be found in the city many of them are relatively meaningless. Pushing paper, doing rote jobs, busy-work, little true interaction with people. You might find a job, but there are only a few who privileged enough to find a job that they get any great deal of satisfaction from. Most of us have resorted to looking for meaning outside of work, in our extracurricular involvements, such as through volunteering or participating in some type of organized social group.  

The City Represents Rebellion and Self-Sufficiency — All of the above mentioned dangers of the city are a consequence of the city’s history and true character. The construction of the first city was essentially a rebellion against dependence on God. This truth is portrayed beautifully and clearly in the Biblical story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4). Rather than depend on God’s protection and provision, Cain established the first city, where he could provide for and protect himself by dominating nature and using violence. The theme of the city representing rebellion and sin runs throughout the Bible, from Babel to Babylon.  

The Good News: We Can Bring and Experience Life in the City! So what can we do? Are we to leave cities or abandon cities as hopeless places of dis-ease? No. There is hope and we can bring it. By the miracle of Jesus’ love, God can fill and transform the very symbol and place of man’s selfishness and rebellion. There’s no set program or method we can employ, no precise dogma that can be used to change the city — only faith made tangible through love.  

In the Book of Revelation John records his vision of God’s kingdom coming to earth and transforming the city. There’s no temple in the city or religious place of worship, the city itself become the home of God, place where his throne is established and living waters flow, where there’s cleanliness, light, and the tree of life. We don’t know how or when this vision will come to fulfillment, but we can take part in it now, through faith. 

It all starts in our hearts. When we are connect to God, through Jesus Christ, we become and extension of his life, love, and creative power. He is the branch and we are the vine. That we, the selfish people we are, can become vessels of God’s love, is truly a mystery, but it’s a true possibility.  The ways the God’s kingdom can manifest themselves in your city, through you, are only limited by our faith and imagination. How is God speaking to you. Who is in your neighborhood, what darkness in your city needs the light of God in you?  

It’s easy to be so overwhelmed by the whole world’s problems that we don’t take steps to demonstrate God’s love in our own backyard. Whether planting a community garden, mentoring a child in foster care, getting involved in your neighborhood association, or problem solving causes of pollution — you can be a bringer of life in your community. We can’t do it on our own, and we can’t expect to build some man-made utopia, but we can be part of a faith-based revolution. A revolution that grows from within our hearts and expresses itself in faith, with the hope that God’s kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven.  

Inspire and educate us! What ways are you getting involved in your community? How can someone discover the needs of his or her community? Do you have any stories of transformation?

Recommended reading: The Meaning of the City by Jacque Ellul and The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne
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Originally posted 2013-10-31 14:36:06.

Re-Perceive Stress to Lower Risk of Disease and Death

The Perception of Stress as a Factor of Disease

perception of stress disease factor mortality cuaseIncorrect knowledge is often worse than no-knowledge at all, but it’s the risk we take in the pursuit of better living. This axiom couldn’t be more clearly demonstrated than by the insight I’ve recently gained that’s completely changed my way of thinking about stress and how it affects the human body. You see, I bought into the mainstream idea that mental stress is inherently unhealthy for the body. Well, I didn’t think mental stress was completely bad, all the time (I recognized it serves a purpose and is a normal part of life), but I was convinced that good health depends on eliminating as much stress as possible. I was shocked to learn that current research strongly indicates that it’s precisely the belief that stress is unhealthy for the body that makes stress so unhealthy!

Two Types of Responses to Stress: Threat or Challenge

Here I’ve been trying to be part of the solution to disease by telling people that stress causes disease (and therefore it should be avoided), but this advice was most likely just making things worse. It turns out, stress, in and of itself, isn’t harmful to our bodies. There are two primary ways that we can experience stress physiologically — psychologist call these two responses, threat or challenge responses. While there are overlaps in the way our body responds to what we perceive as a threat or challenge, there are also significant differences that can have a direct impact on our health.  

The primary difference between the two response types is that during a threat, the body begins to shutdown in order to protect itself: the blood vessels constrict, cutting off blood flow, and the heart becomes less efficient. By contrast, during a challenge response the blood vessels dilate, increasing blood flow to the brain and muscles. Whether the mind solicits a threat or challenge response is determined by one’s beliefs, experiences, and perceptions relative to a given situation. 

The Harvard Social Stress Test and the 30,000 Person National Health Interview Analysis

At this point you might be thinking, “What’s new? We already knew that perception affects stress.” The difference is that the effects of perception on stress were previously always studied in regards to external conditions, not to the perception of stress itself. Two recent studies provide compelling evidence that how we think about stress can cause an automatic trigger of the threat or challenge response, regardless of the external circumstances.

In 2011, researchers at Harvard and UC San Francisco performed a social stress test comparing a test group to a control group of volunteer participants. As part of the study, all of the participants in both groups were required to submit to a simulated stressful interview situation, in which they performed a 5-minute presentation while two evaluators provided negative feedback. After giving the presentation, participants were required to complete a series of analytical questions. Before the interview, the test group was told that stress was not harmful and that it would actually help them perform the presentation. The control group wasn’t given any instructions. When the mental and physical responses of both groups were assessed after the interview, the test group had a significantly healthier cardiovascular response and a more positive perception of their completion of their presentation than the control group.  

In another study, researchers analyzed survey answers and fatality rates from about 30,000 people over 8-years.  Unfortunately, stress had a significant affect on the health of a large percentage of the population but only for those who believed it would! The analysis found that those who experienced stress in the previous year and answered the questioned, “Do you believe stress has a negative impact on health?” with a “yes,” had a 43% increase in the risk for early mortality! By contrast, there was no correlation between stress levels and early mortality among those who did not believe that stress has a negative impact on health!

The Take Away: What we see from these studies is that believing stress is bad for health can promote an automatic physiological response that negatively affects cardiovascular health and can even lead to early death. While the implications of this study are tragic for many, they are also exciting. It’s amazing to see how well God designed our bodies. So much of the disease we face as humans is merely “user error.” Our bodies are designed with a built in mechanism to help us rise to the challenge and overcome difficult situations. If we maintain this positive, faith-filled attitude and believe that physiological stress can actually be a good thing, then many of us will be well on our way to better health!

References: “Mind Over Matter: Reappraising Arousal Improves Cardiovascular and
Cognitive Responses to Stress;”
Harvard University; Kelly McGonigal: “How to Make Stress Your Friend,” TedTalk; “Does the Perception that Stress Affects Health Matter? The Association with Health and Mortality,” Health Psychology; “The Upside of Stress,” Kelly McGonigal.
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Originally posted 2013-10-03 13:15:58.

Take Control of Your Weekends

Central Park

I’m sure everyone knows the 1981 song “Working for the Weekend” by the quintessential 80s band Lover Boy. This song outlines the lives of countless Americans: working hated jobs for five days straight, followed by two days of “new romance” and “second chance[s].” While most people simply view this song as a party joke and a common occurrence in movies and television, I view this song as a window into the detriment of many peoples’ lives.

While working at a physical therapy clinic in South Portland, Maine, I walked to the post office to send our patients’ progress notes to their primary care physicians. I walked passed two homeless men who asked me for money. The Portland area has a large homeless population for a small city, so I was used to saying, “Sorry; no cash,” and going on my way – Maine has the highest percentage of opiate addicts per population in the entire country. A couple hours later I walked down the same street to eat lunch and I saw those same two men reveling in the fruits of their labor: cheap 40 ounce bottles of beer, sharing a pack of cigarettes. They looked ecstatic. Through toothless smiles, they clinked their bottles and mumbled in strong northeast accents. I then realized, when I passed them in the morning they were “working,” now I was witnessing their “weekend.”

As I ate lunch I felt very disheartened. It was a harsh realization that most of the people I surrounded myself with day to day don’t act much differently than these two homeless men. They work for five days straight, followed by two days of drinking too much, eating terrible food and forgetting about their exercise programs; all in the name of “the weekend.” They have homes, jobs, 401Ks, goals and dreams, but still use they weekend as an excuse to act like a completely different people. Between Friday and Saturday night parties and Sunday afternoon football games, these upstanding citizens transform into lazy, self-indulgent people; a far cry from the hard working, focused coworkers I surround myself with the other five days out of the week.

I made a pact with myself that day that I would take control of my weekends; I would not work for the weekend. I would work for the love of work and serving others, and treat my weekends as sacred. Here are my top tips for taking control of your weekends:

  • Wake up around the same time. Your body’s biological clock does not understand a five day work week, weekend parties, and day light savings. It wants to sleep and wake up at the same time every day. Don’t be an alarm clock admiral, but don’t sleep 3-4 hours later on Saturday than you did on Friday.
  • Explore new healthy meals. I love using the weekend as a time to try out new exotic meals. I’ve found that cooking something new can be too taxing during the week, but weekends offer extra time to hone new cooking skills. Make it a goal to try out one CBH recipe every weekend.
  • Set clear workout goals. Don’t set outrageous goals – that’s where most people go astray. It’s too easy to set lofty, unreachable goals. Start small, and work your way up. For example, if you’re new to taking control of  your weekends, set the goal of taking a walk Saturday or Sunday if the weather permits.
  • HAVE FUN! It’s the weekend! Don’t mope around and be a slave to your to-do list and BlackBerry… or iPhone… or whatever else we’re slaves to these days. Turn your phone off; it’s liberating. While you’re at it, have fun with your workouts too. Set a goal, but don’t have a plan. Tell yourself you will perform 20 sets; it can be two sets of 10 different exercises, five sets of four exercises, or five sets of four exercises. If it’s difficult, you’re doing it right!
  • Be quiet. Read. Pray. Meditate. Practice yoga. Go for a bike ride in the wilderness without any earphones. Do whatever necessary to reset your mind and soul; the following five days will be much easier and much more fulfilling.

Originally posted 2013-09-30 14:33:58.