Does Sabbath Include Rest From Exercise?

Photo courtesy of Emma McCoy.

When it comes to observing the Sabbath, many of both Christian and Jewish faith have a wide variety of opinions. In the Jewish faith, Shabbat is traditionally observed on Saturdays, while in the Christian faith Sabbath falls on Sundays. People have different takes on what counts as work, what is too much work, and if Sabbath should even be observed in full at all. I’ve found in many Christians communities that Sabbath is performed either partially or ignored entirely.

“Some Christians can tend to think of Sabbath more symbolically or metaphorically,” said Kara Lyons-Pardue, professor of New Testament at Point Loma Nazarene University. “Sabbath can be viewed more as a ‘break’ from our usual conceptions of work. We tend to categorize our work in such different ways so that sometimes traditional Jewish ideas of work don’t map on exactly.”

I have a very difficult time taking a break from work. Whether it’s school or exercise, I don’t know when to stop and I find it hard to go even a couple hours without doing anything “productive.” From the years 2017-2019, I was on Team USA for a sport called sprint kayaking. My training was all-consuming, culminating in nearly 24 hours of training a week my first year of college. Even though I took a rest day every week, I loaded that day with homework, shifts at work, and planning for the next week’s training block. I was one of very few of my teammates who even took a day off of exercise. I did it, but I still felt guilty, like I was slacking off somehow. For a time, I felt like I had to hit every workout or else I wasn’t working hard enough, wasn’t doing enough, wasn’t good enough.

A year and a half into my hiatus from kayaking, I was wondering what it would mean to truly take a full rest day every week. No homework, no work outside school, and… no exercise?

“In Orthodox Jewish conceptions of Sabbath, there is a limitation [on] the amount of effort you can expend on a Sabbath day. The distance you can walk, for instance. And so there are places where there’s some overlap with modern conceptions of exercise.” said Lyons-Pardue.

But exercise is healthy, right? Shouldn’t it not count as work? I think it depends entirely on what it means to you. If going on a run, or a long bike ride, or a kayak out on the bay is something rejuvenating and calming for you, then go for it. Activities that renew your soul, bring you closer to God, give you a break from the endless cycle of working are a part of God’s vision for human life. We aren’t meant to be machines that can give the same level of output all the time.

If exercising is something you do for an organized sport, something compulsive, or something you do because you feel you have to, I suggest taking it off the table for one day a week. Aside from the spiritual side of things, our bodies are not meant to go through the stress of working out every single day. Rest days help prevent muscle fatigue, allows time for recovery, improves sleep, and prevents injury (https://www.healthline.com/health/exercise-fitness/rest-day#benefits). Whether or not you value the Sabbath, taking one day off a week from exercise can help your body achieve the rest it needs.

Don’t go running to cancel that weekend hike with your friends. Sabbath is about rejuvenation, not deprivation. Slow down, take a deep breath, and don’t place pressure on being productive all the time. Try a coloring book, a long walk, reading a book, baking something new. If you’re an athlete, an active person, or even someone who feels overworked, try taking a day off and see what God can do in your life. Exercise or not, everyone needs a break.

By: Emma McCoy