“For what I am doing, I do not understand…” The Apostle Paul in Romans 7:15
I once came across a picture of a female exercising. And the image had her toned physique further dwarfed by a larger body outline. The caption read as follows:
“Everyone starts somewhere.”
It makes me uneasy as I cringe about my subtle disordered approach to exercise, an approach which set me up for anorexia, bulimia and horrible self-loathing. My experience with disorder did not happen overnight.
As a heavy child, unskilled and awkward with physical education classes, I did not have a healthy view of exercise. Most of my memories are that of being bullied, teased and failing at any sport. I was regularly picked last for teams. And, because of my overweight nature, I was physically uncomfortable with running or anything strenuous. Nothing about exercise felt good to me.
The negative experiences and the negative identity I had gained in school labeled me as “the fat kid.”
I had a choice to make. Which pain do I endure: physical discomfort or the unflattering distinction of being that fat kid?
With the prospect of college on the horizon, complete with its promise of reinvention, the answer was clear. So, the months leading up to my freshman year of college had me employing regular exercise sessions, along with a lower calorie diet, all with the focus of losing as much weight as possible. Between my stationary bike and a mini trampoline, my regimen became more solidified.
At first, these sessions were twenty minutes…then thirty. A month before college started, I upped my activity to an hour a day.
And, like the image of the “everyone starts somewhere” female, my larger frame started disappearing. This was uncharted territory for me. After a childhood of countless failed diet and exercise attempts, now, it was finally working! I was succeeding! And that motivated me, ever hungry for better, thinner results; I kept adding to, tweaking and lengthening my exercise routine.
To my bike and trampoline, I added weight training and sit ups. As my freshman year of college was in full gear, I started getting up extra early, so I could get in my two hour workouts before my classes. As I did this, the scale reading, my waistline and my frame, in general, all started decreasing. I was exhilarated! And this was further underscored by the positive attention I was receiving. Guys were flirting with me. People called me names like “tiny,” “cute,” “pretty” and, of course, “thin.” I could fit into smaller clothes. I was treated better.
Therefore, I didn’t need any convincing whatsoever to continue. If results were this great so far, why stop now?
So, I didn’t. No matter what the scale said, my goal was always five or ten pounds lower than that. I’d never had this thin experience. I wanted to get as far as I could with it.
By mid-freshman year, two hours a day gave way to three…then three and a half… then four. I was getting up earlier and earlier each morning, all to ensure I was afforded enough time to keep my routine intact.
Sit ups, originally at one hundred a session, likewise, turned into two hundred…then three hundred… then four hundred. By years end, I was up to one thousand; when I was at my lowest point, prior to the start of my sophomore year, that total increased to over two thousand each day.
Part of the reason why I squirm at this “everyone starts somewhere” female image is because of the insidious, ever gradual diseased process disorder often takes. No one really goes into something thinking they want pain and chaos. But, blinded by personal fears, goals and dreams, often a healthy pursuit, indeed, becomes anything but that picture of health.
“For bodily exercise profits little…” 1 Timothy 4:8
I’m not against exercise; I continue to exercise to this day. But my attitudes and routines have changed. They had to. At the highest point of my over-exercising, I was regularly blacking out. I was weak, had a throbbing, irregular heartbeat and wondered, on many occasions, when exactly I would be found dead by my mother or my roommates. And that is not healthy by any means.
“For God is not a God of disorder but of peace…” 1 Corinthians 14:33
Over-exercise, indeed, can be a hallmark of disordered eating, body and image issues. Often, individuals undergoing major life changes, like attending college, getting married or having a child can get exercise started for one reason, like to reinvent oneself or lose the baby weight. However, if not careful, all too quickly, obsessions take on another, more monstrous life. And this monster has more harmful reasons for continuing the disorder: to be perfect, to be worthwhile, to escape pain and even, sad to say, to end one’s life.
“There is a way that seems right to a man. But its end is the way of death.” Proverbs 14:12
For all of the beginnings of my own “everyone starts somewhere” journey, what it eventually culminated into was my death wish, via a passive suicide attempt. I hoped, morning after morning, I would not wake up.
“Everyone starts somewhere.” It is a true statement, about a myriad of things, exercise included.
Again, the caution is to know when something has gotten out of our control. It can happen to any of us: young, old, male, female, from every walk of life. Can you see see yourself in this checklist provided below?
Signs of Compulsive Exercise
If you are concerned about your own exercise habits or a friend’s, ask yourself the following questions. Do you:
force yourself to exercise, even if you don’t feel well?
prefer to exercise rather than being with friends?
become very upset if you miss a workout?
base the amount you exercise on how much you eat?
have trouble sitting still because you think you’re not burning calories?
worry that you’ll gain weight if you skip exercising for a day?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you or your friend may have a problem. What should you do?
How to Get Help
The first thing you should do if you suspect that you are a compulsive exerciser is get help. Talk to your parents, doctor, a teacher or counselor, a coach, or another trusted adult. Compulsive exercise, especially when it is combined with an eating disorder, can cause serious and permanent health problems, and in extreme cases, death.
Because compulsive exercise is closely related to eating disorders, help can be found at community agencies specifically set up to deal with anorexia, bulimia, and other eating problems. Your school’s health or physical education department may also have support programs and nutrition advice available. Ask your teacher, coach, or counselor to recommend local organizations that may be able to help.
You should also schedule a checkup with a doctor. Because our bodies go through so many important developments during the teen years, guys and girls who have compulsive exercise problems need to see a doctor to make sure they are developing normally. This is especially true if the person also has an eating disorder. Female athlete triad, a condition that affects girls who over-exercise and restrict their eating because of their sports, can cause a girl to stop having her period. Medical help is necessary to resolve the physical problems associated with over-exercising before they cause long-term damage to the body.
“Everyone starts somewhere.” Challenge the statement to include total health, not just weight loss.
“Beloved, I wish above all things that you may prosper and be in health, even as your soul prospers.” 3 John 1:2
Challenge yourself and ask, “Where am I? Is it a place I truly wish to be?”