How My Exercise Dread Died

I am not an exercise guru, but I did marry one. My husband is such a natural at sports that he quickly surpassed me in the two activities I taught him: volleyball and surfing. Suffice it to say, I’ve eaten my share of pie, ­­both humble and coconut cream, ­­that has added to a mounting resentment toward exercise.

While working up a sweat can be fun, I readily agree, the time and energy required for fitness seemed to evaporate after I moved overseas and started having babies. The pressures of cross­cultural living piled onto the multi­tasking talents of motherhood knocked me flat whenever there was room to choose a pastime. Hm, exercise or nap?​ No brainer.

And there were days when I could barely crawl to my bed at night, swallowing hard tears of the day’s endless grovel before expectations, ­­language, homemaking, parenting, writing, relationships, and surviving in unfamiliarity. Could I really wake up and do it again?

My husband’s suggestions would be consistent: ­­find a social outlet and exercise, ­­the first to which I nodded and the second I scowled. In my blur of borderline burnout, I saw judgement and insensitivity. Can’t you see I’m too tired to jump around with a workout video?​ But truly, in me he saw weariness of body and soul and wanted to energize both.

So it began. I tried several things: running outside after putting the kids to bed at night, DVDs during naptime, stretching with toddlers hanging off my shoulders, taking more walks with the kids strapped on or held tight. Anything to u​p ​that heartbeat, o​ut ​that stress, and i​n ​that tummy was worth a try.

But as the weeks wore on, my motivation to exercise began to wane (Why am I doing this?), mainly because my focus had switched from health to image, which birthed a new problem. What began as therapy for stress morphed into an obsession to look fantastic, so I began to question whether the efforts were worth it when little changed in the mirror. Then one day as I mourned my stretch marks and stubborn baby weight, I muttered this phrase with disdain: “This is my body.”

This is my body.

It echoed in my head like the reverberating call of a giant church bell. Over and over­­ he said it before. And he said it again to me. T​his is my body which is given for you.

And I closed my eyes, tearing my self-­centered eyes away from physical beauty and burnout to rest them instead on the sacrifice of Jesus. How did he use his body? There was the ultimate gift of his body at the cross, but before that, he also lived for 33 years in the flesh. He was a man, fully human and subject to stress and overeating and fatigue. Y​et never did his body hinder him from his Father’s work.​ He rested, like when he slept aboard the fishing boat tossed in the storm. He labored, like when he and his disciples walked for days to minister in different cities. He ate, like when he was invited to dine with the tax collectors and sinners. He did all these things, never held back by an uncooperative body.

Furthermore, His body wasn’t a distraction. He wasn’t concerned about its appearance, only its usefulness. Obviously, he must’ve kept in good shape to do all that he did in his three years of ministry, but he also didn’t obsess over fitness because he had the right focus on doing his Father’s business.

And so sitting there, my clenched fists opened as conviction covered my dissatisfaction.

When I do not prioritize my physical health, my body can hinder me from doing God’s work. ​Without sleep, I run on adrenaline and grumpy spurts of droopy­eyed fluster. Without exercise, I ache and drag through even the measliest of tasks. Without good food, my mood twitches and flares along with the inevitable indigestion. What’s worse is that this doesn’t only affect me. It affects everyone around me, especially my family.

But pursuing good health also has its dangers when I do it selfishly; it can be a distraction from what truly matters. ​Do I see my goals as a means to serving God more fully ­­or as a way to look and feel more attractive?

I am still no exercise guru, but I have a new appreciation for sweat. Even if it doesn’t rewind my years to pre­pregnancy shape, the efforts give immediate energy and stress relief. And these directly affect how I treat my children, how well I take care of my responsibilities, and how I respond to interruptions to normalcy (which seem to happen a lot).

“This is my body.” I had once said it in under­breath anger.  Now, I whisper it to remind myself of why I must take care of this temple. I want to follow Jesus’ example in how he disciplined himself to be obedient, available, and useful to his Father’s will. While eating well, sleeping enough, and exercising effectively can bolster us from burnout, it can also ­­more importantly ­­remove the distraction our bodies can be to the day­ to ­day work of the Kingdom.

***

Do you also struggle with a Christ­-centered perspective of exercise? How can we pursue health and balance without adding more to our already bulging routines? And how can physical exercise counteract the stresses of overseas life?

Photo Credit : Unsplash

12 Comments

  1. Elizabeth March 11, 2015

    Thanks for sharing your journey into sanity-saving exercise. 🙂 I need my exercise to stay sane, too. When I lived in the States, exercise was more to keep in shape than to stay sane (and sometimes too image-conscious too). After moving here, I quickly discovered that my mental health requires exercise. I can’t manage to exercise as often here as I did before, and I’m not in quite as good of shape as before, but I depend upon it more heavily. I usually reach a point between 10 and 20 minutes into the routine where I literally feel the endorphins kicking in and the stress and anger melting away. I get sort of nervous, actually, when it takes 20 minutes. I start thinking, is this going to work at all today??

    When our field coordinator visited recently, he asked if there was anything he could hold me accountable to. And I answered, my exercise, Bible reading, and sleep habits. They are all related for me. If I don’t go to bed early enough, I can’t get out of bed for my devotional. And if I don’t do it in the morning, it doesn’t get done. If I don’t exercise early enough in the evening, I can’t fall asleep even if I’m in bed on time. Then I can’t get up, either. (I’ve tried exercise in the morning — too dizzy.) Without enough sleep, I struggle through the home school day, something I can’t afford to do anymore now that I’m teaching 3 kids and my oldest, a 5th grader, is moving into higher level work. And, being the overly-analytical person that I am, I’ve paid careful attention to the results of skipping exercise and now know that more than 4 days without exercise and I become Oscar the Grouch (which means I shoot for 3-5 workout sessions per week).

    These three things are huge for me — exercise, time with God, enough sleep. I feel like I have to plan my days around these things, and as long as I do, life flows much more smoothly, and I don’t feel like I’m constantly at the end of myself.

    1. Malia March 12, 2015

      How wonderful that you’ve pinpointed your specific needs (amount of sleep, when to exercise, Bible reading in the morning)! I definitely agree that we should be held accountable for our physical health along with our spiritual consistency. Like you said, they are all related. 🙂

  2. Kayla Lemon March 11, 2015

    Exercise has been my saving grace living overseas. I came to China and was immediately overwhelmed by the depression and  anxiety I thought I had overcome in the US. I should’ve known that with transition, the ugly monster of stress, depression and anxiety would rise from its so-called watery grave I thought I had put between it and me. I struggled until I remembered something I did when I was battling both in college — exercise. I began working out 20 minutes a day as just a way to shake the stress, but it soon became a habit and something I looked forward to. Thanks to China and this new lease-on-life with exercise, I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been and I feel wonderful. I started doing Jillian Michaels workouts every day, but quickly became bored (nothing is more demotivating than doing  the same thing every day — or at least it is for me anyway). More recently, I’ve found a couple from Oregon who have transformed the way I see my body through their workout videos, programs, and the way they approach health and nutrition. (Shameless plug: if you’re looking for something new, check out FitnessBlender.com — China users, you will need a VPN for their vids unfortunately.) As a result, I’ve come to realize that it’s not about what my body looks like, but what my body can do. The God I worship created my body just the way it is. I may never be a size 0, but I probably can out-lift the majority of the girls I envied so much in college. I’m a happier, more joyful  person when I get my 30-45 minutes in a day.

    I’ve also discovered how much sleep has impacted the way I see life on a day to day basis. While some in my community tease me for going to bed at 8:30 or 9 every night, with a 6 o’clock wake up the next morning, I’ve realized the longer I sleep, the better.

    Taking care of my body is one of the most crucial things and through my time in China, this has never become more real. Sleep and exercise have been my two ramparts when it comes to fighting burnout.

    1. Malia March 12, 2015

      “I’ve come to realize that it’s not about what my body looks like, but what my body can do.” Yes, I totally agree! It was eye-opening for me to realize exercise is also a way I can worship God–by ensuring I’m healthy enough to obey him, by making sure my body is useful.
      (And thank you for the link to free workout videos!)

  3. a gurl March 12, 2015

    This hits the nail on the proverbial head. This is my body. Funny last December I woke up in the middle of the night hearing you need to start walking. I am 45. Large boned and was startign to pile on the weight. When I was younger I flirted with anorexia/bulemia.

    Today. I try to walk 3 to 5 times a week. It is no big deal if I should miss a day. But I can tell when I need to do it. Sometimes my head is so full it is breathing prayer during the walk. Other times it is my time to zone out, rest, sweat and breathe.

    I have lost weight. But. I have found it is my time with God. I lay out what I am struggling with and yes at times I have found myself punching the air while working out. And during those times I am just where I am supposed to be.

    I had a chance to work out with a friend recently and they suggested that I have a goal and maybe try a race. I looked at the friend and laughed. My goal is simple. That I just do it. It is my time with God. And that was the last thing on my mind when I started doing this again.

    1. Malia March 12, 2015

      I totally relate to your second paragraph! (Sometimes I’m praying, and other times I’m zoning.) What a strong testimony you have for the benefits of both exercise and regular time with God. Thanks so much for sharing this.

    1. Malia March 12, 2015

      Thanks, Mary. There was definitely some wrestling going on. 🙂

      I loved how your FB note looks so deeply at beauty. Gnarled hands and bare feet, nothing in appearance to be desired, yet a heart of service and compassion and truth–these are stunning images of what should touch our souls and move us toward likewise beauty.

  4. Anna March 16, 2015

    I’ve never really enjoyed exercise, but I do realize that I feel better with consistent exercise.  I was motivated recently because of being in a really stressful environment.  With stress, I lose my appetite and have unhealthy weight loss.  Lately, my exercise of choice is 15-20 miles of biking.  I think I just needed to find the right thing.  I really enjoy it, it’s such a good stress release, and I eat a lot more.  I feel so much more relaxed after, and I’ve realized that I feel more tired and sluggish when I’m not getting the exercise than when I am.

    1. Malia March 16, 2015

      What a blessing that you found something active that you enjoy! I agree that exercise gives us energy, and it’s funny how my mind used to trick me into thinking that it would do the opposite–zap all my energy away. And 15-20 miles of biking is impressive! Inspiring! 🙂

  5. erinm June 5, 2016

    Thank you for your honesty! This post has been really inspiring. Whenever I go through stress or change I find it difficult (but helpful) to work in a routine. That includes exercise. But I especially am thankful for your focus on usefulness, endorphins, glorifying God, relaxing, and taking care of the temple over image. In a world that is constantly trying to tell us to focus on image (whatever cultural standard it may be), or tempt us into overly-caring about that image, it’s good to bring it back to what God cares about (always anathema to what the world holds as important-and healthier for our minds, bodies, and souls!). Wow, this was a long thank you. But I mean it, this hits me right where I am in my transition period/coping/stressful time- thanks for this post! 🙂

    1. Malia June 5, 2016

      Oh wow you’re welcome! YES, routine helps me immensely when the world seems to be spinning, and it IS freeing and motivating to see what God cares about regarding our bodies. I’m so glad you can relate–this is encouraging to me!

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