“Hobbling into the gym on crutches the day after a serious leg injury, cancelling social plans because exercise had a tighter grip on me, starting sessions at 11pm to squeeze it in before the day is out, running in the middle of the night to ensure anonymity, becoming unbearably agitated when anything prevents a workout, adding extra sessions, carrying on through injury, skipping rest days, all against the advice of numerous coaches, medical professionals and friends."
"It’s because I’m ruthlessly committed- I would reason to myself, as I wore my badge of honour with pride. You don’t understand what it’s like- I’d reason to others, and it was true, because I was hiding more than just the bonus session of a competitive sports person, at times it was a darker secret- an addiction. Whether it was seconds, inches, kilograms or comments I was chasing, moving my body in physical exercise was the thing I thought I could best control. But the reality was, at times it had more control of me, the warning signs of a broken relationship with exercise. Even for the Christian, all that exercise promises is enticing.”
When we have the talent to play sport, especially if we’re performing at a high level, we feel the pressure to stay on top of our game, or to keep progressing. To add to this pressure, we live in a culture that wrongly conflates body image with performance. A culture that sets goals for our thinness and muscle tone, a culture that proclaims the path to happiness is found in obsessing over eating clean and getting lean. It’s therefore unsurprising that many have developed unhealthy relationships with exercise. For many it has become not something that we love, but something we need.
It can even lead to an addiction to exercise.
Rosie Woodbridge and Simon Poole are both talented sportspeople, well aware of the dangers of an unhealthy relationship with exercise. As they reflect on their past experiences and open God’s word, we can build up a better picture of what exercise addiction is, and how it affects sportspeople.
Exercise addiction is currently classified under "behavioural addiction" in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the gold standard for the diagnosis of mental disorders. It is common for exercise addiction to be linked with eating disorders.
Some of the symptoms are listed below:
It’s important at this point to stop and recognise that addiction is a legitimate and sometimes serious health condition, medical treatment may be the best course of action for some of those affected - please speak to a GP if you are concerned.
One key question we can ask ourselves:
Can I stop? Could I stop tomorrow or would my world fall apart?
And some further questions…
How do I tackle this unhealthy relationship with exercise?
Speak to professionals
It’s important to recognise that medical professionals may be best positioned to help, speak to your GP first if you are unsure about whether you need medical advice or treatment. You could ask a friend to go along with you if you’re worried.
Speak to trusted coaches. Get advice on how much you should be training, what you should be eating, and stick to that. Prioritise key sessions, and allow for other sessions to drop out if needed, don’t exceed the plan, don’t hide activities.
Tackle the spiritual issue
Come to Jesus:
Jesus says “come to me…and I will give you rest.” So come to Him. He has freed you from slavery. Confess that you have worshipped idols and know that you are forgiven. And know that there is grace for us every single time we fail.
Get to the roots:
Try and discern the idol at the roots of your unhealthy relationship with exercise. A helpful question could be: “what do I fear would happen if I didn’t exercise tomorrow?”
Fix your eyes on Jesus:
If Jesus is the object of your affections you will continue to be transformed to make God-honouring decisions. Exercise your freedom to train hard for God’s glory and to be able to take rest from training and competing for God’s glory.
This heart change will not happen overnight, and don’t try to do this alone. Speak to a mature Christian and ask them to work through this with you.
Be careful of comparison
Train yourself to block out unhelpful sources of information - guilt, comparison, resentment are not good stimuli to keep on training. Don’t spend too long watching other people and looking at their training, don’t get sucked in by the internal voice that says you must do exercise, to counteract or to catch up.
Pursue other interests
Find joy in honouring God in other contexts, remembering you are more than a sports person. Enjoy the freedom to do other things - spend time with friends and family or other things you enjoy. Enjoy being able to make time for people and being all there with them.
Whether or not you feel you might have exercise addiction, the question as to what a healthy relationship with exercise looks like is an important one for each of us to consider. So, what does the Bible have to say about exercise, and when we take things too far?
“The level of sport I was playing at demanded a lot: multiple training, fitness and skills sessions each week, and I loved it.”
God has put us in the world with a mandate to use the creative talents He has given us. Sport is good because God made it that way; He made us enjoy our bodies, working them to become faster, higher, and stronger, together, is thrilling because God made it that way. Discipline in training is good because God made it that way. We see respect and recognition of that discipline between sportspeople competing against one another at the top level, because commitment, sacrifice, and hard work are good, God given things. Sport given to us to enjoy as worship to God as we offer up our bodies to train and play for Him.
But it doesn’t stop at enjoying our talents, exercise is deeply linked to our mental health and wellbeing. Regular exercise is proven to boost mental health, and can be an effective part of recovery from depression and anxiety recovery. Exercise also helps us to establish and maintain friendships; sport in particular brings people together like few things can. This reflects our wonderful, relational God who made us to be in relationship with him.
“ I see now I pushed myself too far. I knew I was training more than my teammates, and often leaving socials early so I could run extra shuttles the next morning. But I just thought they weren’t committed enough. When my level of sport required less training, either during the off-season or when I stepped down a level, I still carried on as much as before. I guess I needed it. I needed it because I was insecure about my place in the squad, I needed to be fitter to be better. I needed it because it made me feel good. When life was hard, running made me feel both alive and free. I needed it because I had to obtain and maintain a physique. I needed to exercise to justify my next meal. I needed to exercise to atone for my last meal.”
How quickly as humans do we distort the good things God has given us. How quickly do we look to them instead of God to give us what only He can provide. This is what the Bible calls idolatry, as described in Romans 1:25:“They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator”.
What does this look like with exercise? Why would we do it?
What are some of the idols we chase?
Performance can be the thing that we live for. We may claim that we are training hard to glorify God, but actually we’re just using Romans 12:1 and the ‘Born to Play’ mantra as an excuse. We ‘need’ to keep our place in the squad, we ‘need’ that PB, we ‘need’ to be good enough, and we use this to justify that performance has become an idol that we are worshipping.
We can idolise the effect that exercise has on our bodies. We need to exercise to obtain or maintain a desired physique. And this can all too easily lead to an unhealthy relationship with food. We eat less and exercise more to lose weight because we think it will make us better athletes. Or we are only ‘allowed’ certain foods if we have exercised, or we need to exercise to atone for something we have already eaten. This unhealthy relationship with food and exercise can lead to clinical eating disorders, such as anorexia athletica and bulimia.
Exercise is excellent for our mental health. But we can begin to see it as the solution to our troubles. It becomes the only place we feel safe, in control, good about ourselves.
When we make use of our talents to try and control our own identity and relationships they become an idol. As Tim Keller says about idols:
“If we look to some created thing to give us the meaning, hope, and happiness that only God himself can give, it will eventually fail to deliver and break our hearts.”
Exercise itself is a good created thing, given by God, but it doesn’t and it was never meant to give us everything, it too will soon break our hearts, our minds, and our bodies if our relationship with it is broken.
This is where addictions come from. Idols are not kind masters, they always ask more of you and you can never give enough. They enslave you.
“Where did this leave me? My performance level decreased because I wasn’t getting the rest and food I needed. My unhealthy relationship with food led me to an eating disorder. And because I didn’t listen to my body crying out to rest, I got myself an injury which still surfaces years later. Although to be honest, getting injured was one of the best things which could have happened. It gave me the space to realise I was addicted, and to work through these issues and remember there was more to life than exercise.”
Yet the Gospel brings great hope for those of us who have a broken relationship with exercise.
The good news about Jesus is freedom for the captive. The thing that we may try to use exercise to control doesn’t define the Christian anymore. It is not worthy of worship, and so exercise does not need to consume or hold captive. There is only one true God worthy of our worship- He has shown His love for His people as he gave up His son. This defines the Christian now. Galatians 5:1 says: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” God rescues His people from slavery so that they are free to worship Him.
Idols will break your heart. They are not kind masters, they will always ask more of you and it’s never enough. They will enslave you and exhaust you. But Jesus says, “Come to Me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30
We can be disciplined, hardworking and committed as we worship God as we enjoy the good gifts of sport and exercise AND we can be careful, restful and balanced as we worship God as we enjoy these good gifts.
Rosie is the student worker at Inspire Saint Jame Clerkenwell and an ultimate frisbee Player.
Simon is a Christians in Sport staff member on the Regional & Elite Teams. He is a duathlete and is one of the leaders at Town Church, Bicester.
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