Why I Exercise: A Retrospective
I remember precisely when I began exercising on a somewhat regular basis. It was the second semester of my senior year of high school, after I finally recovered from a fairly serious back injury that kept me on the bench for my first (and last) season of varsity volleyball. I would go to the gym because, well, that’s what I thought I had to do. I wanted to be skinny and pretty and be able to eat dessert every day, so that was that. I didn’t enjoy it, but at that time I wasn’t obsessive about it either. Sometimes, I would go weeks without working out. Then, I’d start to feel gross/fat/ugly/whatever and go back to the gym for a bit, then take a few weeks off, and then the cycle would repeat itself.
This continued until my senior year of college, when I was in the throes of an eating disorder. The entire first semester, I got up every morning at 6 AM (no mean feat for a college student), worked out for a good 45 minutes in the gym near my dorm, and then headed directly to my 8 AM class (the only class to which I EVER wore sweatpants). Without fail. I think I maybe skipped one day. I was a woman obsessed: not only with exercise, but with scrutinizing every inch of my body in the mirror and comparing myself to the other girls working out next to me. If I missed a day, I would torture myself inwardly for being so lazy. If I ate more than I thought I should the night before, I would push myself to the limit the next day. Aside from the brief endorphin-induced post-workout high, I did not enjoy exercising at all.
If I had to summarize my motivation for working out at that time in two words, it would be “cosmetic anxiety.” All I cared about was looking a certain way, weighing a certain number of pounds, fitting into a certain size, and looking skinnier than the other women I walked past on campus each day. It was pure misery. This lasted until I started going to therapy in grad school and eventually moved to Houston for a couple of years, when I began running.
I started running because I couldn’t afford to join a gym. And because I wanted to prove to myself that I could be a Runner. The parish at which I worked was right across the street from a park with a three mile track, on which thousands of people ran each day. They all looked so cool and fit and athletic and I wanted to be that way too! Yes, I wanted to look a certain way and stay in shape. But the choleric in me didn’t just want to run for those reasons...I wanted to impress people with my mile times and distance accomplishments and personal bests. My motivation: vanity.
I remember the moment when my motivation for running vanished: I was still in the midst of a quarter-life crisis-induced depression, and decided to run a five mile race on Thanksgiving Day in my hometown. In the middle of the race, while running faster than I had before, something strange happened: I felt the uncontrollable urge to stop. In that moment, I asked the essential question: “Why am I doing this?” And I couldn’t come up with an answer. I wasn’t enjoying it. I never had enjoyed running. I had already given myself a case of tendonitis in my left foot from running too much that year. I wasn’t trying to lose weight. I didn’t care about being a Runner anymore. So, I stopped. And truth be told, I haven’t been motivated to run at all ever since. And that is A-OK with me.
In the year that followed, I went through a bit of an exercise slump. I couldn’t afford to take regular classes at a gym and even if I could’ve afforded it, I didn’t really fancy going back to a place that I associated with body-scrutiny, constant comparison, and trash TV overload. And truth be told, as athletic as I may look, I am actually not very athletically gifted. My back is ruined for volleyball (the only sport I’d really want to play) forever, so intramural teams weren’t really an option for me. Finally, through the magic of Pinterest, I found HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training). High intensity, super-fast, easy to do at home with very little (or no) equipment, and completely FREE. Plus, the trainers on the videos all seemed to think that being muscular was actually a good thing (I’ve heard similar things about CrossFit, but that is way out of this high-school-teacher-living-in-DC’s price range). For a girl who always wanted to be rail-thin and cursed her naturally muscular build for the majority of her teens and twenties, discovering HIIT was a revelation.
Not only that, but I noticed that I got a much better post-exercise endorphin high after 12 minutes of a HIIT workout than I ever did after 30 minutes running. HIIT has become one of the keys to managing my anxiety, and made me so much more thankful for the way God made me, muscular build and all. After three years of HIIT workouts, I would summarize my motivation as follows: 1) managing my anxiety without meds, 2) staying healthy in general, and (when I’m in my most mindful and intentional mode) 3) giving thanks and honor to the Lord by taking care of myself.
Definitely a far cry from the cosmetic anxiety of my teens and the vanity of my early 20s (and trust me, those two still creep in every now and then!), but even so...something was missing. And last Thursday, while babysitting the Most Adorable Nieces in the World, the Lord showed me what that Something is.
Here’s how it went down: Sophia (then 3 years old) decided that it would be fun to sit on my lap while I was squatting down to see her new play-kitchen. Not surprisingly due to my precarious position, I fell backward onto the wood floor, taking Sophia down with me. Before we even hit the ground, both laughing until our faces hurt, Sophia said her favorite word (when it comes to playing, anyway): “Again!” So, we did it again. And again. And again. I think I let her sit on my lap and fall backward with me onto the floor ten times in a row. Then we played horsey (both on all fours and piggy-back style) ad infinitum. And it was all SO wonderful, in the fullest sense of that word.
On my way home, exhausted but full of joy, I was struck with a kind of gratitude for my body that I’d never known before. I was so thankful for my strong bones and my muscles and my energy level, and my stamina, which are ultimately the results of the fact that I exercise the bones and muscles and lungs that God has given me. Later that afternoon as I was working out, I realized something...or rather, something that I had known intellectually for a long time finally made its way to my heart: the body is for love. The Lord gave us bodies, the Lord took on a body himself, in order to love as only human embodied souls can love. I was able to love my niece in a unique way because I take care of my body. As all of this dawned on me, I found myself skipping rope faster, jumping higher, lifting my kettle bells with more ease than I had in a long while. I wasn’t just working out for me anymore; I was working out so that I could love in a way that God created me to love. Love my nieces, love my students (because teaching is actually a very physically demanding job if you're as animated as I am in the classroom), and love my family members and friends, in the sense that the better care I take care of myself, the longer I will (God-willing) be here to love them.
Am I saying that a person who is in poor health can’t love as well as a person who is in good health? Absolutely not. Of course we can love without being in good health. Many people are born without the capacity to exercise in the way I’ve described. Some people go through long periods of injury or illness that prevent them from being able to get on the floor with their kiddos or nieces and nephews. We all get sick from time to time. And everyone who makes it to old age experiences limited movement and the breakdown of the body. Each of us is called to love radically, in the unique way that God created us to love, regardless of our health status at the time.
What I am saying is this: if you are in good health, if you can exercise, if you already do exercise, it is helpful to analyze your motivations for doing so, and to ask the Lord to purify them.
Because in the end, the best motivation for working out (or doing anything, really), and the only thing that will sustain any kind of commitment to your personal health, is not that dress hanging in your closet or the beach vacation you’re going on this summer. It is LOVE. Love of God, "in whom we live and move and have our being,” and love of others.
That's the only motivation that will ever be sufficient.
What about you? If you exercise, what's your motivation? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments!