You’re crushing your fitness goals, and yet somehow, it just doesn’t feel like quite enough.
I started running more seriously in college. I also picked up weird habits like peeling off any parts of bread that had been buttered to save the calories for beers later. As I graduated from college, I also graduated to running marathons. And never eating any bread. Ever.
Maybe you do stuff like this too. You’ve done it all—barre, Orange Theory, 5ks, yoga, lifting, interval training, etc. You never miss a workout. Never. If something keeps you away from the gym, you obsess about it until you’re back. You know what I mean: the way you let your workouts dictate your daily and weekly schedule, what you allow yourself to eat, even your mood. This was me, too. I wanted to look great and stay in shape—something good and healthy! But soon, I realized my workouts were running my life. My goals for health landed me in an unhealthy place.
Exercise quickly became central in my life. No matter what else was going on, my assessment of the day always revolved around whether I’d gotten my workout in. If the answer was yes, then I felt great about myself. If not, my emotions sunk. I’d feel bad about myself until I got a run in again. Rinse, repeat.
Then I had multiple injuries in my mid-30s. Turns out, your body isn’t the same at 32 as it was at 22. These injuries forced me to face the place exercise held in my life. I was so unhappy when I couldn’t work out. During a year of plantar fasciitis, I’d cry when people ran past me on beautiful fall days. The next year I tore a rotator cuff acting like a Ninja Warrior at a waterpark. I couldn’t lift a gallon of milk, let alone hit the weights at the gym. The injuries really messed with me because it revealed the fears underneath my exercise. When I couldn’t just keep working out to make myself feel better, I had to confront the facts:
I was afraid of getting fat. I was afraid of being unattractive. I wanted the approval of certain people in my life. I was afraid of looking bad in skinny jeans or even seeing a picture of myself. Those fears were driving me, and it was finally clear: I was a slave to working out.
Exercise was just covering up a bunch of crap. Even though I wasn’t doing anything unhealthy (just the opposite!), the way I was doing it wasn’t good for me. I’d been using it to keep myself away from my fear, which unknowingly gave it the power to control my emotions, my schedule, my priorities, and my self-image.
Twenty years later, I’m still health-conscious. I still care about keeping my body healthy and fit. And not only am I happier, but amazingly, even when I dropped the intensive focus, my weight has hardly changed at all (except during my four pregnancies, of course).
Between ages 22 and 42, I’ve had to figure out how to prioritize my whole self over the quest for a perfect body. I began to realize that no one ever gets there, so exercise had to stop running the show.
The key to everything I actually wanted—being in shape long term, being happy with myself, feeling attractive, and having a lifestyle I could sustain and enjoy—was directly linked with being free. Free to change, rest, try a new season or type of workout that fits what I need. I want you to be healthy, look great, and be free, too.
Getting free was hard. Exercise is a demanding master. But I found a better one that helped develop a new heart and habits.
I started to find freedom from all this as I got to know Jesus better and better. I know that sounds weird. What in the world is the connection between Jesus and workouts? The answer is freedom. Wherever we aren’t free to choose, free to rest, free to lay something down or pick it up again, free to prioritize something else for a while—wherever this is true, God’s not satisfied for us. He calls us to a life of freedom. Freedom to move, breathe, and go where He sends us. The freedom I started to find with Jesus showed me all the places I wasn’t free. I actually think He cared about this enough to sideline me so I could see how messed up I’d been.
I didn’t need new years’ resolutions, new gyms, or eating plans. I needed the freedom that comes from His grace. Grace is the only thing that was ever going to overcome my messed up behavior around exercise. I just don’t have it in me to stop. I want to be thin. I am afraid. I will always control my schedule to ensure a workout. I’ll do this all unless He helps me out of it. But with Jesus is grace. His grace brings freedom and the power to choose something better. When I began to believe I was completely accepted by Him, it slowly began to give me the freedom to choose what’s right for my day, my body, my life in this moment. With Him, I stopped thinking always working out was going to give me what I needed, and I started asking him how to stop those thoughts, emotions—how to stop being a slave to it.
Looking back, I know He wanted me to see I wasn’t free. Galatians 5:1 says that “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” But I was constantly trying to measure up to a body standard, a certain weight, or be bikini-ready or skinny jeans perfect. I still need grace every day, or I’ll go back to my short-sighted, short-term, short-on-grace exercise goals. God would love to replace those with a grace that sustains us today (no matter what my body looks like) and empowers us with choice and change if we need to. He is so much gentler with me than I ever was with myself.
Now over 20 years later, I’m healthy and strong and in good shape, but I don’t bow down to exercise. All the obsessing never paid off with the perfect body. I do a few small things to keep myself aware of the place I’m giving my workouts in my life, so I don’t go back.
So, here’s a new workout plan:
- Approach exercise patterns seasonally. Ask what actually makes sense for you right now? Today. Is work crazy? Do you have babies? Does your body feel stiff or sore? Are you fighting with yourself every day to get to the gym? Freedom and sustainability mean being able to adjust, lay off, or change patterns for a month, a quarter, a year to accommodate other parts of your life.
- Designate one day a week for exercise that’s purely enjoyable. Go for a walk with a friend and call it your workout that day. Hike, and don’t worry about your heart rate dropping when you stop to enjoy the view. Go to Zumba even if you’re a little embarrassed you like it. Don’t call yoga your “off day.” Just go do something active you actually like.
- Stop with all the measuring. Don’t wear a watch that measures every little thing you do. Don’t use apps that constantly measure your performance against standards. (I do have one that just tracks miles I run). If you can’t bring yourself to give this up cold turkey, then just back away slowly. How about not doing it for one workout a week? Do silly things like get off the treadmill at 3.91 miles just to train yourself not to be so focused on achieving certain measurements with every workout. (The first time you do that, it’ll bug you the rest of the day! I hereby grant you permission to still tell people that you “ran 4 miles at the gym.” You did. By the time you walked to your car, it was 4 miles).
- Take every seventh week off completely. This is not for the faint of heart. This is for the warriors among you who really want to see what’s inside you. If you’re as attached to exercise as I was, this might seem crazy. Try a full week on a regular basis where you allow yourself to give up the priority of exercise. You will be shocked to see how and what your life shifts towards. It will be very enlightening. I know you’re stressed about even the thought of it!
You need a workout plan that feels a little more like this. Sometimes in my forties, I get out of bed in the morning, and something hurts that didn’t when I went to bed! And all I did was sleep! I want us all free enough to laugh and take a day off if this happens because we know grace. I want you to look great and be free. Let this be the year of freedom—when you start calling the shots instead of letting exercise be the boss.
What jumps out to you most in Alli’s story? Why?
What drives your workout goals? Ask yourself “why” 5x to uncover a deeper reason than maybe you’ve articulated before.
What would change if you had grace for your body? For how it functions and how it looks? How might you feel or live differently?
Imagine what freedom would look and feel like when it comes to how you workout. Whether you’ve ever prayed before or not, ask God to lead your thoughts. Give Him permission to redirect your thinking, set your goals, and fill you with his grace.
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