For years, I’ve spent the winter months of January and February the same way: at the gym early in the morning or late at night, trying to work off the damage done from the holidays, and making sure I look fit for summer. While I enjoy lifting weights and running, exercise can quickly become all-consuming for me, monopolizing my thoughts and priorities.
It’s easy to cover this up by saying I’m trying to stay healthy. While partly true, it’s more accurate to say I’m scared of looking fat.
I don’t love sharing these thoughts. I’d prefer to pretend I have it all together when it comes to my appearance. But a growing number of men of all ages are spending more and more time worrying whether they’re thin enough or muscular enough. Personally, it’s not unusual for this fear to hit me first thing in the morning.
Do I need to work out today?
Finding the answer to this question means asking a few more.
Did I work out yesterday? Will I work out tomorrow? Does my shoulder still hurt? How many weeks has it been sore, anyway? Is there a better way I could be spending my time? Do I even want to do this?
I understand it may seem like I was obsessing over it. And for what it’s worth, I’ve gotten a lot better. Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have even asked the question, as spending hours in the gym was a no-brainer, regardless of whether I was hurt, sick, or should have been spending time focused on school, work, friends, or family. This isn’t because I played a sport—I played the tuba in the high school marching band, which is pretty much the opposite of playing any sport.
I was just terrified of gaining weight.
Less-Than Healthy Living
I wasn’t always perpetually preoccupied with fitness. In fact, in my peak marching band days, it was quite the opposite. I loved pizza and pretty much anything with sugar (I mean—what’s not to love?), and this left me perpetually 30 pounds overweight.
Eventually, around my junior year of high school, I decided to get the excess weight off. I wish I could tell you my motives were pure, as though I woke up one day determined to invest in my future health. In truth, I wanted to date more (OK, I wanted to date, period), and I was convinced being overweight was holding me back.
Ironically, I never had the same conviction about the tuba.
I started eating better, saying no to sweets and exercising. After a few months, the work paid off, and I was down to a weight considered healthy for my height.
The problem was, I didn’t know how to stop.
At this point, I only knew how to gain or lose weight—and I didn’t want to gain. So, I kept losing. I was obsessing over food labels, calculating and then re-calculating how much fat I was about to take in, then began planning ahead to pre-measure the next meal and make sure no there were no unwelcome surprises in store.
For my 18th birthday, my mother had gone above and beyond, ordering a customized ice cream cake with my favorite flavors to celebrate the occasion. I ignored the cake—and my mom’s hard work—and played it off like I wasn’t hungry. In reality, I was afraid to eat ice cream.
I also started replacing meals with exercise. I told myself this was perfectly healthy, but my body felt otherwise. One morning, having skipped lunch and dinner the day before and replaced both with workouts, I got out of bed, walked 10 feet, and passed out. Mom found me after hearing my 140-pound frame hit the wood floor.
Coincidentally, while I was fighting mental battles with workouts and food, I was also starting to question and analyze my faith. I’d grown up calling myself a Christian, but I was starting to ask hard questions about what that meant. Did I actually believe the Bible was accurate? Was Jesus actually the Son of God? Or was I just accepting such things because that’s what I’d been told, out of default?
It took two or three years to find answers to the spiritual questions I was asking, and another 15 to realize those answers were connected to my image issues.
“Do I have an eating disorder?”
For a long time, I assumed it was unusual for a male in their teens, then 20’s, then 30’s to be hyper-focused on his appearance, but that’s not the case.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, eating disorders will affect 10 million males in the U.S. at some point in their lives. This can include anything from binge eating, purging, abusing laxatives, and excessing fasting.
Also on the rise is the rate of male teens thinking the perfect body is lean and muscular and spending hours in the gym trying to meet an impossible standard. As entertaining as Marvel movies can be, it’s a problem when men see the toned arms and broad chests of Chrises Evans and Hemsworth and try to create a mirror image.
A quick note: None of this is meant to compare with or minimize the pressure women of all ages feel to meet the world’s false standards of beauty or the fallout they’ve experienced trying to meet impossible benchmarks set by magazines, TV, and movies.
What Does the Bible Say on Healthy Living?
Scripture doesn’t immediately come to mind as a fitness resource, but it does have helpful things to say about how we’re to treat our bodies. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 states, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God with your body.” There are several concepts we can take from this, one of which is that God cares about our physical bodies. If you’re a follower of Jesus and believe He died for our sins to reconnect us with God, part of the way, we honor that sacrifice is by taking care of physical selves. Our bodies are no longer our own, meaning we can no longer justify labeling Taco Bell as a food group.
This does not, however, mean we’re obligated to become CrossFit champions or ultra-marathon runners. While taking care of your body is healthy, for some of us, we begin obsessing over it. And while the Bible tells us to take care of our physical selves, we also have to keep this in perspective. 1 Timothy 4:8 reminds us, “For while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and the life to come.”
Taking care of yourself means taking care of your WHOLE self, and that includes your emotional and spiritual wellbeing. If thinking about how you look, how much you can bench, or how many miles you ran yesterday is becoming all-consuming, then consider taking a step back. God doesn’t want your fitness routine dominating your thoughts.
Leading by Example
It took time—years—but I eventually began to moderate my workouts and stop obsessing over food labels. This was partly from exhaustion—spending every day in the gym, plus working full time, and trying to have social life was unsustainable. Something had to give, and it turned out taking a day or two to rest provided a much-needed break. I also realized I could occasionally indulge in ice cream and other treats without turning into a pumpkin.
A game-changer came in 2015 when I met and started dating my wife. Burgundy wasn’t concerned about my waist size but rather about the type of husband and father I would be: Would I commit to leading our family spiritually by praying and reading scripture on my own time each day? Would I put her and our kids before myself? Would I commit to remembering that paper towels are not synonymous with dinner napkins (the latter of these three tenants is surprisingly difficult to live by; still, I press on).
Being the husband she wanted—and that God wanted for her—meant ensuring her needs were met before going to the gym or out for a run.
Four years later, our daughter was born, and since then, I’ve been even more conscious of the way I treat my body and myself. At nearly two years old, Evie sees everything around her, despite how hard I try to hide it (I’ve accepted she will never not know where the remote control is). That means the way I treat and think about my body will inform the way she treats and thinks about hers, for better or for worse.
Being the husband and father my wife and daughter need means thinking about them and their needs first thing in the morning, not my fitness regiment. While that sounds obvious and is my aspiration, occasionally, I still get nervous when I hear whispers from that 20-year-old voice saying, “You won’t be loveable if you get soft or fat.”
When that happens, I stop and remind myself that my worth to my friends, family, and God isn’t rooted in my appearance. It also helps to remember truths rooted in scripture, such as Ephesians 25, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her.” This reminds me of the type of man God calls me to be. Instead of focusing on the size of my biceps, it means focusing on the needs of my wife, daughter, our friends, and our family and putting their needs and wants above my own.
How to Tell You’re Working Out Compulsively
If your workout schedule is starting to feel more compulsive than cathartic, I encourage you to ask yourself a few questions:
Do I have an eating disorder? Are you obsessing overeating habits? Do people close to you wonder why you are doing that?
Why am I doing this? Is your regiment about health or training for a specific goal, or is something more abstract driving you?
What am I afraid will happen if I don’t work out today? Taking a day—or even a week—off won’t significantly set you back. If the thought of pausing makes you afraid, there’s something else there.
If you’re a Christian, a few more thoughts to consider: What does the Bible say about your worth? Where does your identity come from? What does being truly healthy really look like?
God wants us to take care of ourselves, but He doesn’t care if we have a six-pack, nor does He want our bodies to become our identity. He has bigger plans for us than that.
Process, journal or discuss the themes of this article - here's a few questions to get the ball rolling...
Do I Have An Eating Disorder?
What stands out to you most about this article? Why that?
How does body image show up for you? Make a few lists asking yourself the following questions: How do you describe your physical appearance? How often do you think about it? How much do you invest in it or not? And the most important question of all—why?
Look at the answers to those questions. If you heard a friend answer them that way, would you feel like they were healthy? How would you advise or encourage them?
What if, like Tom, there is a way better goal for your life than being as fit or attractive as possible? What might yours be?
Take a few minutes to imagine handing your answers and perspectives on this to God. Ask Him to take everything that’s unhealthy and replace it with his truth. Write anything you hear or feel down. Then forward this article to a friend to keep the conversation going with them.
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