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Am I Putting Exercise Before God?

By January 28, 2013

I have been struggling with disordered eating for years as well as bulimia and excessive exercise. I have been to treatment and feel I have come so far. I also tend to be a perfectionist and can be a little OCD! My question is about putting exercise before the Lord in the mornings. I have gone to the gym at 5:30 every morning to a cycling class for years. As I have grown in my recovery I now only allow myself about an hour of cardio, working out six days a week. I will have to admit I still get anxious if I can’t work out one of those six days and definitely make the gym a priority. Still obsessing I assume! I know in my own strength I can’t overcome that. FINALLY I am realizing this. I have been trying to do this in my own strength and have become very depressed. Thoughts I often have are, “If you really love God you wouldn’t go to the gym at 5:30,” and “Your not totally surrendered to God, exercise is an idol.” These are my thoughts. It seems to help me not think about exercise so much if I can go at 5:30 and get it over with. I think it helps going early to keep from worrying about it later in my day. I have two children and a fairly busy schedule so it is nice to have it out of the way. Am I just trying to justify this. Do I just need to step out of the boat and study first and trust God to take away the desire to go and or allow the time somewhere in my day if I give Him my time first thing. I get up at 4:15 most mornings to pray before I go because I began to feel I was not seeking the Lord first thing in the morning. Then I began to feel that I was putting exercise before my quiet time because I did it before studying the Word. Feeling there is scripture that says to seek His kingdom first, having no other gods. I don’t know if I am being legalistic or being obsessive about exercise. Please help. I am feeling very confused and a lot of guilt which I know is not from God. I know Satan has distorted my thoughts and is confusing me, but I have felt God is saying you have to seek me first. I just don’t know if I am becoming legalistic about it because of my perfectionism and OCD. This probably makes no since to you as you are reading this, but if you can decipher it I would love any godly council you can give. Thanks. – Cathy

Dear Cathy,

Thank you for courageously sharing your struggle. Yes, this definitely makes sense to me. I have heard this mental battle many times over the years. You are certainly not alone.

First, congratulations on your hard work in recovery. I’m sure you have learned a lot about yourself and are putting useful skills into practice every day. I will say however, that a few key phrases stand out to me in your email:

“…workout six days a week…”

“…anxious if I miss a day…”

“…go early to get it out of the way/nice to have it out of the way…”

It sounds as though there is a component of “have to” not “want to” with this exercise regimen. A very important aspect to long-term recovery is facing perfectionistic/OCD patterns head-on. Therefore, ask yourself “am I a slave to my spinning class?”  If exercising in this way is the only way to reduce anxiety then its time to re-evaluate other anxiety reduction skills with your therapist. Ask yourself “what is the worst that could happen if I don’t exercise today?” or “what if I go for a 30-minute walk with my neighbor, does this not count as exercise?” or “is playing with my kids for an hour in the yard considered exercise?” 

What I recommend is to examine the true motive to exercise. I recommend a worksheet from the Moving Away From Diets workbook called, “Matching Motive to Activity.” This helps to identify what I believe are God-honoring attitudes toward activity: social connection (walk with a friend), learning a new skill (salsa dancing), to improve confidence (kickboxing), quiet time with the Lord (a hike in the mountains) as well as to tend to physical health (biking, running, swimming, etc.) but not for calorie burning and/or weight loss.

Exercising in order to burn calories or as the only means of calming anxiety may only fuel eating disorder thoughts which may distance us further from the Lord. Asking what may be alternative motives to exercise could lead us back into fellowship with Christ and therefore freedom with eating and exercise.

Second, I want to emphasize that the desire to exercise and be fit. Caring for our mind-body-spirit is completely God-honoring. God doesn’t want us to not take care of ourselves. But He does want our time and attention toward Him to be THE priority in our life. So, I would challenge the all-or-nothing thinking. Just because you have a desire to go to the gym doesn’t mean you don’t love God and are putting Him second. I believe it is entirely possible to exercise first then have quiet time with the Lord or vice versa. I believe the bigger issue is the obsession around exercising and possible eating disorder motives to maintain this pattern.

A lesser issue is legalism around God’s place in your life. God wants us to come to Him with a willing heart. Anything that hinders our willingness is something at which to take a closer look.

Lastly, relax and take a deep breath. Quiet yourself before the Lord and ask what He truly desires for you in this area. Be still and listen for His direction. You may ask to make His desires your desires because He wants our absolute best in every area of life. I have seen many godly women over the years who have asked this very question to find joy with true freedom in Christ not only with eating but also activity.

I have no doubt the Lord will bless your desire to seek Him and honor Him with your mind-body-spirit.

Juliet N. Zuercher, RD