A step too far

Exercise addiction and the Christian

Exercise is healthy. For most of us, a little more would undoubtedly be wise. It increases our physical wellbeing – decreases our stress and anxiety – and, often, brings us into contact with others who can encourage and inspire.

For a few, however, exercise is a snare. It’s a trap, an obsession, a kind of addiction with some of the physical and all of the spiritual pitfalls that alcoholism and drug dependency provide. But it flies under the radar far more. With its veneer of acceptability, it’s a craving that many a believer finds easy to hide.

What is exercise addiction? Not technically a medical term but a drive, a compulsion, to work out and keep working out beyond what it wise. It sees people exercising relentlessly in ways that ignore injury, justifying unhealthy changes in weight, dismissing the need for regular rest days, and at times investing significant amounts of money into equipment that allows them to train away from the public eye. People prioritise physical discipline over relationships with family, friends and God – the run not the quiet time becomes the first and most important order of the day. Women may see their periods stop or fail to restart after weaning their child. Those addicted describe exercise as a need rather than a desire and genuinely believe that their life would be worse if they exercised (even a little) less. Frequently they latch on to the buzz the “progress” in pushing themselves harder brings – there are apps that electronically reward their punishing schedules – and they describe a sense of panic or life being out of control if opportunities to push themselves physically are withdrawn.

Often, it’s an addiction that co-exists with other struggles of the mind. Those with an eating disorder can, at times, over-exercise in order to lose weight; those with body dysmorphia can use exercise to try to sculpt their body into something a little closer to what they feel it should be. A small minority will self-medicate to reach goals more quickly and, in the process, risk serious harm. Maybe hardest to spot are those with anxiety who started exercising with the (very wise) intention of trying to keep their worry at bay but things spiralled down. Now they convince themselves that without that endorphin hit, without that extra muscle strength, without those few extra miles, without that sense that at least one part of their life is going right, nothing in the day will work out OK. The very thing they engaged in to bring their anxiety under control, starts to control them and lead them astray.

Bringing it into the light can be a difficult task. Sometimes gentle expressions of concern may help people see the mess. At other times, fact-checking weight, training regimes and rest patterns against sporting advice can help them see how far from healthy their behaviour has become. A trip to the GP can often be wise. For many though, the way in can be conversations about the heart, not the behaviour. As they increasingly turn to God, the best comforter and King, the dangers of relentlessly pumping or pounding the streets towards physical and spiritual ruin (and, without doubt, that is where exercise addiction can end) begin to come into sharper view.

A look at the roots is an important port of call. Is it a drive for control? A desire for a sense of purpose? A discontent with body? Or a deep-rooted drive to punish for sins of the past? People can, in effect, become endorphin junkies – looking for that high to stave of sadness at the start of the day. Or have allowed a good desire for self-discipline to have become an idol – a legalistic, self-salvation that exalts personal sovereignty over their bodies rather than acknowledging they are God’s. Whatever the driver, there will be things to repent of – idols are always an afront to the living God. But there will also be a need for comfort. Those desires will probably have stemmed from painful experiences, difficult contexts – hearing the Lord’s tender words of care has power, too.

Going forward, there is the old self to take off and the new to put on as the mind is renewed (Eph 22-24). That will mean running to God for refuge, before putting trainers on. It will involve knowing he is ALL we need to face the day. Human strategies can indeed be helpful but must never usurp him from his ultimate providing role. Part of change will involve contentment with our body – not seeing it as something that needs so much of our energy to transform. Contentment with our lives is important, too – meaning comes from our relationship with God, not achieving a measurable goal each day.

Practically, exercise regimes will need to change. Every week will have rest days, injuries will be treated, medically healthy weight maintained. Relationships (both vertical and horizontal) will take precedent over reps. Those struggling will be willing to be open and accountable – not defensive – about how much they’re pushing themselves each day. Then a week away from their routines, when holidays are again allowed, won’t fill them with dread. A day out with family or friends that demands an early start will be something to embrace, not shun.

Exercise is good. Exercise is very good. For a few it is a job! But it must never become a god. It’s never the thing that will make our life possible – only Christ has that role. And when that perspective is recaptured, there is something better than muscle tone – there is freedom and joy.