A few years ago, I wrote a post about examining your motives before you work out. In that post, I briefly referenced my own battle with disordered eating and exercise addiction, and I talked about my [then] current struggles with figuring out how to exercise with the right motives. Since that post, a lot has changed. I got pregnant, graduated from graduate school, moved back to Texas, had a baby, and am currently in a season where I am staying at home full-time to hang out with my son.
One of the advantages (and disadvantages) of staying at home full-time is the amount of time I have to think about random things, and recently, I’ve been revisiting the motives behind why I exercise.
Before I get too deep into things, let me note again that I used to be addicted to exercise. This means that for six years of my life I would regularly prioritize exercise over hanging out with friends, I was controlled by my workout schedule mentally and emotionally, I would occasionally skip out of work events early in order to exercise before night-time commitments, I would regularly exercise past my body’s physical limitations causing self-injury (hernias and a lot of knee problems), and I would literally freak out (picture tears and fits on the floor…for real) when something got in the way of my exercise schedule.
My motives during this time of my life are still a little unclear to me, and it would probably take way too many words to sort out here, but I know that large parts of my actions were rooted in fear/control (“What would I look like if I stopped working out so much?”), perfectionistic conformity/acceptance (“I’m supposed to look a certain way, so I have to do this, because if I don’t do this, I won’t be as accepted by both men and women.”), a lack of understanding/real belief regarding where my true value was found (“As long as I’m ‘fit’ people will like me, which means I am worth something.”), the enjoyment of praise (“It sure feels good when people tell me I look good, so I’m going to keep doing this.”), and simply because I just generally enjoyed being active (which was – and still is – a good thing).
Today, I can confidently say (by God’s grace, of course) I am no longer addicted and my exercise routine looks completely different than it used to. I try to work out a minimum of 3 days a week and I intentionally do not exceed my pre-set maximum number of 5 days per week, but some weeks I don’t work out at all. I don’t throw fits when I can’t exercise (in fact, sometimes I rejoice) and I don’t feel controlled by my work-out routine…at all. And I try (really try) to listen to my body instead of doing things that will hurt it.
But, even in all of this and after so many years of working through my addiction, I can still struggle with working out for the wrong reasons. I can still let fear and control rule, I can still forget that my value is found in Christ and his acceptance of me and not in what my abs look like, I can still be overly perfectionistic, and I can still be too focused on what others are thinking about me. And I hate it.
But, why do I care? Because my motives dictate my actions and the things I do impact others.
When I choose fear and control, I’m encouraging others to do so, as well. When I’m choosing to focus on looking perfect, I’m telling others they should do the same. When I’m finding value in how I look instead of who God created me to be, then I’m telling others their value is found there, too. I’m basically playing the game and “raising the bar” for others, and I hate the idea of that.
Because, on some level, it’s damaging. I think we all know that. I mean, if you’re a woman my age, we probably fell under some of the same influences.
My family never really talked about weight growing up. I don’t remember anyone talking about how skinny so-and-so was or how good someone looked because of how fit they were – and I’m REALLY thankful for that. But I watched MTV and I read Bop magazines (which, lets be honest were AWESOME) and through those avenues I learned what beauty was supposed to look like.
So my easily influenced self tried to conform.
Today, the messages we are sending are more along of the lines of “strong is the new skinny,” which, honestly, I like more than the “be skinny” phase we were in previously, but, unfortunately, it’s just the same.
Because what message does my buff-arm selfie promote? (**PLEASE see note below, here.) Is it another standard that my future daughter (if we are able to get pregnant again and have a daughter) or my nieces will feel as though they have to meet? Will they feel insecure when they look in the mirror because of it? Will they question where their value is found? If my motives dictate my actions, what motives am I acting on and what are those actions communicating?
We all know that exercise is important. Exercise can help manage stress, it can build strong bones and muscles to give us strength for hard tasks and fight osteoporosis, it can help us nourish a healthy heart (physically), and it does help us feel more confident about how we look (which isn’t a totally bad thing), but how am I promoting it? Am I letting my need for praise rule? Am I taking it over the top? Am I idolizing exercise and telling others to do the same?
I’m so guilty.
So I’m praying through it. I’m not beating myself up about it, because I know I don’t have the earthly potential to be perfect and that being perfect isn’t the criteria for having a relationship with Jesus, but I’m still praying through it. I’m praying that my motives for working out are purer and less self-centered. And I’m praying that I set a positive example for those to come.
I’m not there yet, but I’m praying I get there eventually.
** I know this statement – and a couple of statements in this post – can sound kind of “judge-y,” but please know that is not my aim. Obviously, some people’s fitness level has a direct link to their job and ability to provide income for their family AND some people can post very buff-arm selfies strictly to encourage and motivate others without any weird self-absorbed stuff going on. I, personally, do not fall into either of these camps, which is why I am using the buff-arm selfie as an example of misplaced motives/actions for myself. I’m not trying to judge you or your actions. I’m just revealing my own twisted motives and where I’ve been recently.