Missouri Baptist University President Alton Lacey recalls the day he became hooked on running, even though it was 41 years ago. It was Sept. 10, 1972.
“That was the day I watched Frank Shorter become the first American in 64 years to win the Olympic marathon in Munich,” he wrote in a blog several years ago. “The very next day I strapped on my sneakers…or what we called “tenny shoes” (running shoes in those days were little more than a slab of rubber with a canvas top) and trudged over in the hot Texas sun to the local middle school track, determined to become a runner.
“I took off, one-sixteenth of a mile (not too bad), one-eighth of a mile (starting to hurt), three-sixteenths of a mile (this was a bad idea), one-fourth mile (I’m done),” he recalled. He couldn’t imagine anyone running 26.2 miles, let alone accomplishing the feat in two hours and 12 minutes as Shorter had done.
“My goal at that moment was to make it one time around the track without stopping,” Lacey admitted. “I thought if I could ever run a whole mile I would be in tip-top shape and besides, why would anyone want to run farther than that? Somewhat to my surprise I found that I actually liked running and thus began my life of fitness.
“It was not so much a spiritual quest, though I was in the seminary at the time, as it was a challenge to myself to get in shape,” he said. “Since I have never run with earbuds or music blaring in my head but only with my thoughts, it did eventually become a time of reflection, meditation and often prayer for me.”
Lacey’s second major motivator in his fitness quest was Dr. Kenneth Cooper, a Southern Baptist who coined the term “aerobics.” In the late 1960s, as an Air Force colonel, Cooper developed a method for assessing fitness that assigned points to aerobic exercise based on intensity, duration and age.
“For example if you were 20-29 years old and could run 1.7 miles in 12 minutes, then you were in excellent aerobic shape,” Lacey wrote. “According to Cooper, I needed to get about 50-60 points a week to stay in shape.
“Although I dropped the point system years ago, I have continued to keep a record of every workout that dates back to the second half of 1978. During that time, I have logged over 27,000 miles in 7,800 workouts and climbed 190,000 floors on the Stairmaster,” MBU’s 18-year president said.
Years later, he would meet and spend time with each of his running and exercise inspirations. These days, Lacey readily acknowledges his interest in fitness “began mostly as a challenge to see how far I could run and, hopefully, stop the weight gain I had achieved through my life as a newly married graduate student.
“(Cooper) was the first Christian I knew to articulate clearly the connection between spiritual commitment, physical health and emotional well-being,” he said. And that insight wasn’t lost on Lacey. Today, it is a concept that is increasingly important to him as he leads a university staff and encourages students to take seriously their faith as they develop healthy lifestyles and reap a myriad of benefits as a resort.
“It is indeed ironic to me that one of the largest industries in our country has proliferated at the same time that obesity and other health-related illnesses have reached epic levels,” he said. “I am, however, glad to see that today the emphasis has shifted more to wellness which includes the physical (nutrition, fitness, stress reduction) as well the mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of being human.
“As the leader of a university, I long ago realized that I need to make my wellness a priority,” he said.
“I remember reading the account of a brilliant missionary who died at a very early age because he literally worked himself to death despite the protestations of his friends and family,” Lacey said. “How much more might he have accomplished for the kingdom had he taken care of himself?
“I also began to realize the practical impact on the psychological, economic and spiritual dimensions of the university when people do not take care of themselves,” he said.
“For example, we spend millions of dollars on health insurance for our employees and we know that even moderate activity can improve a person’s health and well-being,” he explained. “Why would we not encourage that? We encourage people to read the Bible, pray and go to church to strengthen their spiritual wellbeing.”
Strong scientific evidence suggests that regular physical activity provides an expanding list of benefits, he argues, including:
• Lower risk of early death
• Lower risk of heart disease
• Lower blood pressure
• Weight loss
• Reduced depression
• Better cognitive function
• Improved muscular fitness
• Lower risk of colon and breast cancer, diabetes and strokes
• Prevention of falls
He admits his list is partial and does not include physiological adaptations and metabolic changes.
In September, Lacey took his fitness passion to a new level. He became certified as a group exercise instructor by the American Fitness Aerobics Association, alongside daughter Brenna, MBU’s fitness coordinator. They went through the intensive certification process together, completing months of study and preparation that culminated with a lengthy written examination and oral boards, he said in the winter edition of MBU Magazine.
Lacey leads an exercise class that meets from 7:30-8:15 a.m. on Mondays.
The president’s motivation for certification was simple: “Fitness has been something I have been passionate about,” he said. “I’ve seen its benefits personally and have a desire to help others experience the rewards that come with fitness.
“When the opportunity arose to get my fitness certification, I immediately thought of how I would like to use it,” he said.
“Over the past seven years, as I have been involved in fitness classes, I watched a lot of people come to a class and never return,” he observed. “I could usually predict who would and who would not return based on their reaction to the class. When the instructor called for 10 pushups, maybe they could do one or two. When the exercise was a timed one for a minute, maybe they could go 30 seconds. They became self-conscious and felt like it was a competitive endeavor among the more ‘elite’ in the class.
“My interest is to get those people interested enough to become the exercise-for-life types,” he said. “I would hope that some of them would move on to intermediate classes but if they do not, they will still get a good workout, learn good technique and do so in a welcoming and non-competitive environment.”
The educator is well aware that academic populations tend to be sedentary. But they are not alone.
“I would venture that many ministerial populations also suffer from too much stress, too much food and not enough exercise,” he added. “While the Scriptures do not deal specifically with physical fitness, I think it is implied throughout the Bible that the appropriate home for a vibrant spirit is a healthy and fit body.
“Years ago I heard a theology professor give a lecture on trends of the future and he said there would be large fitness facilities which he called “Cathedrals of Sweat” and these would supplant student centers as the gathering places of young people,” Lacey said.
“I liked his imagery and his vision has become reality. It is up to us to make the connection between physical and spiritual fitness.”