“For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” 1 Timothy 4:8

What does it mean to be healthy? What does it mean to be well? Exercise science professor Dr. Doug Crowell challenges his students to view health and wellness from a different perspective than popular culture—a perspective he had to learn the hard way in college.

Growing up, Doug had been a “multi-sport athlete.” In high school, he had competed in soccer, track and field, hockey, baseball, and tennis. “I liked competing and working out,” he says. “I liked training; I liked getting to the gym and preparing for the different sports.”

At this early point in his athletic career, he couldn’t have imagined he would one day earn a doctorate and teach classes in exercise science. As it was, he would be the first person in his family to go to college, and the only thing he knew was that he wanted to play college sports.

In college, Doug decided to focus on hockey. But his sophomore year, he suffered a serious injury that not only derailed his hockey career but sent him into a year-long downward spiral. Without his sport, Doug felt lost—he didn’t even have a major.

“But by God’s grace—and I think God’s hand is in all of this—I had a mentor.” Doug’s mentor was a senior exercise science student, and he was also extremely perceptive. “Doug, I know you,” he said one day. “You love sports, you love working out; after your injury, I see you getting back into shape and getting a degree in a field that fits you. There’s this new degree called exercise science—”

“I’m not really sure P.E. is a good fit for me,” Doug said.

“No, no, no,” his mentor clarified. “This is exercise science. You study the human body, how it works. You’ll understand the basis behind training programs, and you’ll be able to train athletes, non-athletes…” He began to describe his internship volunteering at the cardiac rehabilitation center they had on campus, helping heart attack and heart surgery patients recover through specialized training programs.

Doug was intrigued.

He struggled through his first Anatomy & Physiology class, but he remembers his professors encouraging him not to give up. One of his instructors said to him, “Doug, you’re really passionate about this field.”

“What do you mean?”

“I see you working with the cardiac patients, working with the faculty and staff in the fitness program, and reading journals and articles in your field. You’re engaged in class” (I’m kind of quiet, actually, he thought), “you’re present, you’re into it” (My grades are just okay), “and you seem like you really enjoy it. Your eyes light up.”

Really? Somebody sees that in me?

His professors’ encouragement built Doug’s confidence and helped him recognize how his passions could lead him into a unique career that would allow him to remain connected to sports and fitness. Two of his professors urged him to consider graduate school, and the following year, he began his master’s at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

It was in graduate school that Doug’s view of health transformed as he began to see health as holistic and symbiotic. He remembers a professor introducing him to the “wellness model.”

“So, just working out and eating well, right?” Doug said.

“Eh, no.”

It turned out, there was a lot more to health than training the physical body.

Wellness is about the holistic development of a person, Doug explains: mind, body, and spirit. Physical health is tied to emotional health, which in turn is tied to spiritual health, which is—you guessed it—tied to physical health! And healthy individuals help shape, and are shaped by, healthy communities. “If the community’s not well, you aren’t going to be well,” Doug says, and points to the biblical model of shalom.

“When my mentors introduced me to that concept, I started to realize why I had been in such a funk when I got injured.” Doug had invested so much into his physical health that he hadn’t paid much attention to his mental, emotional, or spiritual health. When his physical health took a blow, he didn’t have the spiritual or emotional wellness to lift him up.

At his mentors’ urging, Doug began to pay more attention to his spiritual and emotional health. He found himself going to church more regularly and developing his spiritual life. With the encouragement of godly people, his confidence grew, and he began to experience the shalom that occurs when one’s emotions, body, and spirit are each being nurtured.

Having learned the importance of holistic wellness, Doug began to see a myriad of ways in which he could use this model to help others who had found their lives out of balance—from heart patients to addicts to pastors to elite athletes.  

Over the years, Doug has worked in corporate wellness, physical therapy clinics, fitness centers, and as a strength and conditioning consultant.

For one season, he also followed in his mentor’s footsteps and worked with cardiac patients in a hospital rehabilitation center.

Over and over, he’d encounter clients who wanted to get healthy but who were ignoring key components of their wellbeing. Doug challenged them to focus on more than their physical heart in their wellness journey. “Let’s take a look at your stress levels,” he’d say. “Let’s take a look at how you’re doing emotionally.”

“My emotions affect my heart?”

“Yes.”

Doug would talk to his patients about stress management, emotional intelligence, and how the heart is connected to the mind. “Did you know that when you’re in a mode of forgiveness, your heart beats differently?” And he’d show them the data.

In another season of his career, Doug spent two years running the fitness center at an addiction treatment center. “I was probably the most popular guy there,” he laughs, remembering that the fitness center became an escape for many of the men and women receiving treatment. “I don’t want to hear about counseling stuff—put on the music, I’m going to train!”

But before long, Doug began to notice that for some, exercise was becoming a substitution for their addiction. He realized that, as healthy as exercising is, it can also become unhealthy when done in excess or for the wrong motives. “You’re just using this as another form of a drug,” he’d say.

“No, Doug, don’t say that!”

“Well, it’s true.”

Over and over, Doug has strived to show people how a biblical perspective can inform and shape their physical health. Following biblical practices like humility, letting go of anxiety, and forgiving others, can actually make our bodies healthier, in addition to increasing our spiritual and emotional health.

On the other side of the spectrum, Doug challenges Christians to see how the field of exercise science can shape their spiritual wellness.  He remembers dialoguing with one of his pastors, a godly man whom he respected, but who struggled with his physical health. Together, they explored why caring for our physical bodies is a spiritual investment. “If you eat well, move your body, don’t smoke, and keep your blood pressure down, you’re going to live longer. You’re going to feel better.” You might also avoid burnout in your career and increase your ability to invest in others.

At Corban, Dr. Crowell helps his students make similar connections. What does your character have to do with your performance as an athlete? What does humility have to do with professional excellence in your field?

Many of his students are athletes, and Dr. Crowell often reminds them that their character is of utmost important in their athletic performance. “We have to look at the holistic development of an athlete, not just the physical. Not just that they have a vertical jump of 30 inches or can bench press 250 pounds. What kind of person are they?” He points to the dozens of examples in the media of athletes making poor decisions that hurt themselves, their team, and their communities. “And I’ve been there too,” he admits, “but I believe that God wants us to grow in character. So I had to make some significant changes in my life.”

Developing the whole self—from your character to your emotions—will not only make you a healthier person, but it’ll help you excel in everything you do, including your sport. In addition, developing the whole self can help prevent athletes from experiencing lack of direction and purpose once their athletic career wanes—something Dr. Crowell had to learn the hard way.  

“I talk to my seniors all the time,” Dr. Crowell says. “What are you going to do when your college athletic career is over?”

“Not sure,” many will say.

“When you were in my nutrition course, you never missed a class, and you like reading about this topic. I think you’d be a great nutritionist.”

“You love working out with athletes, enjoy creating training systems, and have great business sense. I think you could own a strength and conditioning center.”

“You did a great job on the research project. Have you considered a career in teaching and research?”

Just as his own professors did for him, Dr. Crowell pays it forward by building students’ confidence, assuring them that they’re capable of far more than they can imagine, and helping them recognize their passions as pathways into unique, meaningful careers—as physical therapists, occupational therapists, strength and conditioning specialists, personal trainers, dieticians, coaches, or even cardiac rehab specialists.

But more important than what students decide to do is who they decide to become. “You will impact the world for Christ because of who you are as a person,” Dr. Crowell tells his students. And they’ll have the greatest impact when they’re people of godly character who have tended to their emotional health, physical wellbeing, and spiritual life.