Shunning Shame: Finding Balance in Healthy Exercise

“Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well.” 

3 John 1:2, NIV 

I have struggled with exercise nearly my entire adult life. When to do it, how to do it, where to do, how much to do it – you get the idea. I was fortunate enough to take dance lessons throughout my entire childhood, for 12 years, actually, which sort of took the onus of planning and committing to exercise off my plate a bit; it was built into my routine, which was a great thing. But once I left for college, I was bombarded with warnings about gaining the “freshman fifteen” and people asking what I would do to stay in shape since I would no longer be dancing. My natural response to these comments was to try to work hard so that I didn’t become the stereotypical overweight college student, which meant enrolling myself into multiple P.E. courses my freshman year (which didn’t even count as class credit), hitting the gym multiple times a day, and of course walking miles across campus every day just to get to class. In some ways, it was really amazing to be working and strengthening my body. But the issue wasn’t only that I was working out a lot; it was what was motivating the sometimes-excessive exercise: fear, shame, guilt, anxiety. My self-worth was so tied to my physical appearance that I would push myself to exhaustion just so I could ward off my fear of gaining weight for a few hours until the next workout. This shame-based motivation also obviously impacted my eating habits and relationship with food as well, but more on that in a later post.  

I spent the rest of my college career riding the waves of a cycle of shame when it came to exercise: I would work out a lot, burn out, and then not go for a jog or hit the gym for months. During those seasons where I wasn’t exercising my body, I would spiral into feelings of worthlessness and guilt because I didn’t have the energy or motivation to work out, and I did gain weight. Other times when I was maintaining a more consistent exercise routine, I felt amazing – but only if I was also losing weight. Which of course, for a girl my size (“average”, if you will) isn’t always necessary or even possible.  

By the time I finished undergrad, I was engaged to my now husband and anxiously anticipating my wedding day, which was almost exactly two months from the day I walked across the field at UNC-CH. I fell into the same mindset that plagues many young brides, which was this idea of “fitting into my wedding dress”. Now this was pretty absurd, because I ordered the dress to be made to my existing body measurements – so it was designed to fit my body specifically so I didn’t have to fit into it. Nevertheless, I had grand ideas of shedding all this weight (looking back, I’m not really even sure what weight I wanted to shed) in the two short months before my wedding. I joined a gym once I moved back home and took a job as a nurse’s aide, which appealed to me, in part, because I would be on my feet for 8-16 hours a day and would be lifting and moving bodies all day long – which sounds like SUCH great exercise, right?  

My wedding day came, and I had not lost any weight; in fact, because I was working so much, I was exhausted and almost never went to the gym where I had so proudly purchased a membership at the beginning of the summer. I was so discouraged and remember crying several days before my wedding because I didn’t believe I would look as beautiful as I had always imagined because I wasn’t thin enough. But the day came and went, and I WAS beautiful! Not because I was thin or because I wore a pretty dress or because my hair and make-up were done, but because I was ELATED to be marrying the man of my dreams. Don’t get me wrong, those other things certainly helped, but when I look back on my wedding photos now, I see how HAPPY I was, and that is the overwhelming memory I have when I think of that day. 

Since my wedding day almost three years ago, my battle with exercise hasn’t quite been won. I still fell into the unbalanced cycle of routine exercise and existing as a couch potato, and those “dry seasons” always left me feeling inadequate. Last year, one of my resolutions was to practice more discipline in my life, and exercise was one of those areas. I didn’t want to exercise mindlessly or in a way that was motivated by fear or guilt or physical appearance, however. I wanted to exercise for health, to feel good, to use my body, to accomplish something. So what did I do differently this time? I didn’t join another gym, but I did start running. I ran outside to enjoy the sunsets, I ran around my town to get to know the people and neighborhoods, and I ran races – 10 races over the course of 2018. I ran 7 5Ks, 1 4-miler, and 2 10Ks, which all felt absolutely incredible. When I started embracing and practicing exercise as a celebration of what my body could do and not what it could look like, I started finding a joy in working out that I’d never quite experienced before, at least not since my dancing years. I loved the feeling of accomplishment I felt after a race or long run, and it didn’t matter that I was slow (because I was/am), it just mattered that I had done it.  

This year I haven’t had the opportunity to run as much or in as many races, but I have carried a very important lesson with me into my exercise routine: all movement is good and worthy to be celebrated, and my value is not inherently tied to my exercise routine or weight or dress size. Not only that, but all movement is a testament to the incredible design and capabilities of the human body. God created my body for functionality, for navigating and exploring the world and connecting with others, and it’s my job to take care of it so that I can continue doing those things, but not so that I can boast about a number on the scale. I said this in my last post and I’ll say it again: I am FEARFULLY and WONDERFULLY made, created with care by the God of the universe, as are you, my friend, and THAT is worth celebrating.  

What does all this mean for me? This means that I enjoy a good run now and again, that I practice yoga when I’m feeling more mellow, that I take long walks with my dog and count it as my exercise for the day, that I go to the gym with a friend occasionally which brings a sense of community and fellowship into my workouts, and that I also take time to rest and laze when that’s what my body tells me it needs. Today, I can genuinely say that I enjoy exercise and don’t struggle as much working it into my routine – hear that though: I don’t struggle AS much, but I definitely still struggle. It’s hard to make exercise a priority sometimes, especially since I work full-time and get tired and have other responsibilities that pull at me, and sometimes I’m still tempted to think of exercise as a guilt trap. But exercise isn’t only a necessity in caring for my body, it’s a privilege and a gift to be able to move! I find that way more motivating than wanting to lose five pounds. 

My prayer for all of us is that we can come to a place where we can view exercise with a right mind and in a healthy way, that it can become a source of joy instead of a trap of shame. I applaud those of you who have successfully conquered this struggle and pray for those who are still working through it. I have clearly bumbled through my relationship with exercise, but God is teaching and molding and bringing beauty out of those bumbles, for which I am ever so grateful.  

If you struggle with these issues and would like some encouragement, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me or someone else you love and trust. I know the weight of carrying the burden of an unhealthy or unbalanced view of exercise, and it is heavy. But you don’t have to carry it alone!  

This week, I hope you get out there and enjoy a good walk in the sunshine or yoga on your living room floor or an exercise class with friends, or a good long nap on the couch. It’s all worthy of celebration. 

I love you, friends, thanks for walking through this bumbly life with me, can’t wait to talk again soon.  

Lovingly Yours,  

Melisa 

P.S. Check out my “finish line photos” from all my races last year and some from this year too!

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