Reclaiming my relationship with exercise & breaking free from body shame

As I packed my bags for a six month trek to Australia, I began trying to plan how many pairs of workout pants and gym tops I would need.

Should I bring my weight lifting shoes and running shoes?

Will there be a school gym I can use?

Will it be too humid to run outside?

I had to remind myself that I didn’t spend all my time planning a trip Overseas to study abroad just so that I could work out. But it didn’t matter how hard I tried, the thoughts kept coming. I kept thinking about the type of people I would be around. The schedule I would be on. The impression I wanted to leave other people with. Sometimes it feels as if my mind is a never ending raceway that has no finish line, and I have to stop it from going into overdrive by taking a few deep breaths and remembering what is true.

Today, I’m writing about exercise and the funny relationship I’ve had with it over the last  five-ish years, specifically with running. It’s a bit of a long post, but trust me when I say that I’m only scratching the surface. It wasn’t easy for me to write this post, but I think it’s a message more people need to hear and maybe you will agree too.

For the majority of recent years, running has been a major place of comfort for me. When I was a sophomore in high school  I was playing volleyball and after practice, if I felt like we didn’t get enough of a sweat in, I would run a mile through my neighborhood. Part of this had to do with wanting to escape my home environment, and the other part was me being extremely insecure and wanted to lose weight. When I was tired of dealing with the politics of volleyball however, and after my best friend at the time…and the cross country coach who coincidentally lived in my neighborhood, talked me into coming out to run, I automatically fell in love with the sport. I quit volleyball and turned my one mile run into seven…ten…sometimes thirteen mile runs.

I loved running for many reasons at that time in my life. I loved how friendly fellow runners were. I loved the mental shift I got from the “runner’s high” and how in control I was. I loved the fact that I was actually pretty good at running and was noticed for being good. But deep down, my love for running was deeply intertwined with the lie I had rooted inside me, that who I was—just as I was—was not worthy. My love for running over the next few years would escalate into unhealthy patterns of constant weight, food and exercise tracking.

Running catered to obsession with these things because I could take my shoes with me anywhere I went to make sure I got a workout in. I could feel less guilty if I ate something unhealthy. If I didn’t like the weight I saw when I stepped on the scale, I could burn the calories off. Work harder. Run longer. I could brag about the distance I went. I could feel empowered…I could feel strong.

Only, I wasn’t strong. I was broken. Three years into my eating disorder, the cartilage in both my knees were crying out for mercy and my bones were begging for support. The physical therapist thought I needed rest, and I thought she was lazy. When she asked me to take a break from running as much as I was, I lowered my mileage from fifty miles per week to thirty five and then wondered why I still wasn’t getting better. I told myself, “I’m going to get stronger” while I continued to get weaker. On the days I didn’t run, I’d go to the gym for two hours and on the days I did run, I’d still go the gym for two hours. I’d run to physical therapy. I’d run to the store. Any chance I had, I would run. No longer being in high school, and now in college,  I was able to be my own boss and had little supervision.

I didn’t want to stop running because I feared a life without it. It had become a part of my identity, and even on the days when I walked to class with a limp, struggled to make it up stairs, and sat in class unable to get comfortable or sit without my legs extended, it was worth it to me. As long as I got my run in for the day I was happy. I used to say how when I didn’t run, I wasn’t myself. Now I know the times I’m not myself, are the times when I’m too distracted by the unrealistic demands of our world to see my true name, as a Daughter fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14).

Maybe you’re like me, and you have a hard time taking a rest from exercise. You feel good when you workout, and you fear what will happen if you don’t workout. Maybe at times, you feel like the only thing you have going for you are your looks. Maybe you think maintaining the outside is easier than dealing with whatever you got going on in the inside. If that’s you, I’m here to tell you that it’s okay.

Our world has programmed us to think that working out and achieving whatever ideal image it is we strive after, only comes through harsh demands we place on the body.

If you aren’t sore, you aren’t working hard enough.

Being out of shape is a choice.

People who don’t work out are just lazy.

If you want to see results, you have to work for them.

A good majority of our society focuses on changing people to be someone else instead of teaching them to accept themselves as who they already are. We treat people who’ve attained a certain body like a queen or king who have overcome great mountains. I think we forget there are more important mountains to overcome and areas of life we can work to “be in shape.” I think deep down, even when someone thinks it is an ideal image they are after, it’s in fact a much deeper desire their heart longs for.

Does feeling good in your body and liking the way you look, help to boost ones confidence? Absolutely. Is meeting the goals we set out to achieve, a major accomplishment and something to be celebrated? Of course. But so is coming to a place of peace regardless of what we see when we look in the mirror. Loving ourselves so deep that when we look into the mirror, we don’t get stuck on that one pimple that just won’t seem to go away… or that thigh gap we wish we had…or the belly fat we’ve been trying to get rid of. Because here’s the thing my friends: Our bodies will change. They are always changing. We get sick. We get pregnant. We enjoy the holidays. We choose quality time over gym time. Things just happen, and that’s okay. If every season of our lives is a season where we are in the best physical shape of our life, then chances are, there are other areas of our life that have to suffer along the way.

I know that for me, when I was running the best I ever had in my entire life, and when I was the skinniest (not healthiest) I had ever have been in my life, I was also the most lonely and unhappy. I prioritized working out more than I did anything else and I let the watch on my wrist and the scale in my bathroom determine my worth. And look, I’m not saying everyone who loves to work out or run, or do any other type of exercise on a regular basis and all of the time, has a problem or unhealthy way of living. I’m just saying that I did and I know there are others out there who do too.

I love moving my body and believe carving out time for movement makes a huge difference to our overall health! However, I don’t believe that our body’s appearance is what makes us a champion. Being able to run a certain distance or lift X amount of weight is cool and impressive, but it is not something to idolize or strive after…at least not in my life.

It has taken a long time for me to recognize and question why it is I’m running or doing any other form of exercise. Questioning the lies I’m believing, and telling myself the truth even when I don’t want to. Not exercising for old reasons is sometimes extremely difficult because like I said, our world encourages behavior that often leads to a poor definition of what healthy is. We define health by weight and forget that “healthy” includes many more variables. So, we can’t always rely on the world because the world will let us down. The things we think we need or will make us more happy, will not ever truly satisfy. We will age, the runner’s high will fade, and our true character will reveal itself.

What will you be left with when that day comes? This is not a question of shame, it’s just a question. An open ended exploration into how you will define what it means to be a queen or king in your own life. For me, sometimes being a queen means unfollowing certain people on social media, not taking my running shoes or workout clothes on vacation, and setting aside a day of rest.  

Here are a couple other questions you might ask yourself as you start to think about your relationship with exercise:

  • Do I schedule other priorities in my life (i.e. spending time with family and friends, studying, working) around my exercise schedule?
  • When someone asks me what I have planned for the weekend ahead, do I automatically think about when I will work out?
  • How does my mood change on days that I exercise, compared to the days I don’t?
  • If I plan what I will do for a workout the day or days before, do I make myself do it even if I wake up and am sore or my body disagrees with my decision?

This is your life. Your body. Your story.

I know what it’s like to feel like giving up, and to feel jaded by the never-ending effort to try to come to peace with who you are, and to not be impacted by all of which is happening around us. There are days I still struggle. But life is a process and I truly believe that it is the most difficult things we need to continue to press into, and trust, are going to be worth it in the end.

So, to end, I’d love to leave you with a verse that reveals the best kind of endurance—the kind of endurance that won’t ever fade or lose its shape.

Hebrews 12:1-3

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.




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