Fitness and health are almost always centered around weight loss, hitting a measurement/weight goal, and/or achieving some sort of (trendy) physical ideal. Social media is littered with before and afters and dangerous diets that promise to help one shed weight quickly without making the dieter feel deprived. Of course, this is unhealthy for the obvious reasons: quick fix diets are unsustainable and often do way more harm than good, the lack of an intrinsic motivation to be healthier can damage one’s self-esteem if their physical goals aren’t reached, and the “ideal body” is always changing, making its pursuit impossible. I think these are all good reasons to be cautious of making lifestyle changes for superficial reasons, but it’s important for us to have a conversation about how fitness can nurture our personal and spiritual growth.
The Prophet (S) ate a primarily plant-based diet, did not overeat – he explicitly warned against it – and encouraged exercise and physical activity. Three of the five pillars of Islam involve food and movement, and I think there’s a significance to the fact that our first obligation as Muslims after declaring the oneness of God is physical prostration five times a day. To me, this represents that our words and beliefs must be followed by movement, and that movement deepens our spiritual devotion. I also think that eating well and exercising is a form of worship in itself. Our bodies are an amaanah (a trust), and taking care of them is a way of expressing gratitude for what we’ve been given. Finally, the better we feel, the better we can be as family and community members, neighbors and friends.
Exercise can alleviate depression and anxiety, decrease blood pressure, reduce stress, build immunity and boost energy – so working to achieve these benefits is a healthy way to further one’s faith in God and service to one’s community.
Eating well and exercising is also a way of practicing self-love. It’s common for self-love to be encouraged an avenue to improve mental health, but we rarely talk about what self-love looks like – and many suggestions on how to practice it are superficial and won’t make a lasting impression on the way we perceive ourselves. Self-love doesn’t look like a gorgeous tropical retreat. It is having bravery and courage. Building confidence and appreciation for ourselves comes when we try challenging things and prove that despite our doubts and fears, we’re willing to make the effort – and when we’re finally able to tackle something we once thought we couldn’t do, our self-respect rises. When we make the decision to eat well, we’re pushing ourselves to be different, better than we were yesterday. When we go for a run or pick up a dumbbell, we’re aware that it won’t be easy but that there’s something positive to gain. It’s not just about the immediate effects or feelings — everything we do is meaningful and intentional, every action we take sends a message to ourselves about what we think is possible, how capable we think we are, and most importantly, what we feel we deserve. By choosing to push for more, we’re acknowledging and enforcing that we deserve better, can be better, can ask for more of ourselves and the world around us, and are capable of achieving things we used to think were impossible. Self-love and self-respect are then a natural consequence.
The pursuit of weight loss and physical rewards is limiting. It confines us to a number, and its underlying message is that our value is in how the world perceives us – being smaller and taking up less space. There’s way more to gain by prioritizing how we can grow. I truly believe that health is foundational. Before actualizing our deepest goals and desires and becoming who we are, we have to ensure that our more basic needs, like good health, are met. By treating fitness as the first step on a staircase that’ll lead us to become our very best selves, we make our bigger purpose the backdrop of every decision we make. We need to drown out the messages that diminish just how pivotal our health – separate from our appearance or weight – is to who we’re capable of becoming. Our days are comprised of choices, and we’re fortunate to have control over how much we move and what we eat. Next time you pick up a fork or need to exercise, don’t choose the short term – choose you.