When Good Things Go Bad: Compulsive Exercise

Too much of a good thing is a real possibility. Physical fitness and general health are important qualities, and in our current cultural climate they are celebrated hobbies. Yet, as with all things, moderation is an important aspect of exercise. Too much exercise can actually be counterproductive and dangerous. This is particularly true when combined with other maladaptive behaviors, like an eating disorder. It is important for those who love fitness to take time to regularly evaluate their habit. The Bible gives us a framework for evaluating whether our exercise is healthy or destructive.

The Bible has much to say about the importance of moderation, stewardship, and enslavement. Exercise is a good thing, but when done in extremes it can lead to serious harm and become an enslaving habit. Scripture warns us that there is an appropriate time and place for all things. So, the author of Ecclesiastes writes:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

There is an appropriate time and season for all good things, but excessive indulgence in one area of life can become destructive. I love that this verse notes that there are seasons for healing and seasons for breaking down. These terms apply very aptly to physical fitness. One of the angers in compulsive exercise is a refusal to let the body rest, recover, and heal. Working out requires some level of breaking down the muscles, but they also need time to recover. Overworking your body can lead to a state of constant inflammation in the body and potentially serious long-term damage. Do you recognize appropriate times for fitness and appropriate times for rest? Do you exercise even when injured? Do you take breaks from exercise? Do you cancel plans, or constantly rearrange your schedule in order to make time for working out?

The Bible also speaks to the importance of responsible stewardship of our bodies. So, Paul states:

19 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, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)

Our bodies belong, first and foremost, to God. Therefore, whatever we do in our body should bring honor to God. Negligence of our physical health is one obvious failure to “glorify God in your body,” but so is abuse of our bodies. Overexercise is a form of self-abuse. It is also not concerned with honoring God, its goals and purposes are much more self-focused. Evaluating the reasons for our exercise habits can help us to see just how disconnected God is from our behavior. Would your exercise glorify God? Does it reflect good stewardship of the body He gave you?

Finally, the Scriptures warn us that we are not to be enslaved to anything. Paul says:

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. (1 Corinthians 6:12)

It may seem strange to suggest that exercise can be an addictive habit, but it’s true. Paul points out that while something in and of itself may not be sinful (“all things are lawful”), it can become sinful when it rules us. Working out is not sinful; and yet if I MUST workout, then it has become an enslaving habit. Defining what is an appropriate amount of exercise can be difficult. Even fitness experts are in disagreement about some of these matters, and if you prone to compulsive exercise you can use that lack of agreement to justify your behavior. Don’t think, however, of enslaving exercise habits in terms of the amount, think more in terms of your own emotional response to exercise. Could you stop if you wanted to? Do you feel obligated to work out? Do you judge your worth based on how well you work out? Do you judge a day good or bad based on how much you exercise? Do you ever wish that you could stop?  Carolyn Costin and Gwen Schubert Grabb have a helpful definition of compulsive exercise. They write:

If you are a compulsive exerciser, you are over-involved in exercise to the point where, instead of choosing to participate in an exercise activity, you feel obligated to do it and can’t stop. Essentially you have become “addicted” to exercise and continue your activity level even despite adverse consequences… Basically, you are a compulsive exerciser if you engage in excessive and purposeless physical activity that goes beyond any usual training regiment and ends up being a detriment rather than an asset to your health and well-being. (8 Keys to Recovery from an Eating Disorder, 172)

In this scenario you always have to do more: more laps, more miles, more weights, more reps, and you are  almost never satisfied with what you have done.

Evaluate yourself. Do you have a compulsive exercise habit? When combined with an eating disorder this habit can become lethal. The lack of nutrition and fuel add to the body’s vulnerability in an abusive workout regimen. If you have an eating disorder and you work out regularly, you are most likely addicted to exercise. Seek help immediately.

Exercise is a good thing. We should be responsible with our bodies and take good care of them. Yet, even something good can become destructive when it is used excessively, and idolatrously. Exercise can be used to seek to meet need that it was never designed to meet. It can be used to replace God in our lives when it is used to both make us feel valuable and provide us with emotional comfort. Be conscious of your habits and of your justifications. Even good things can become bad things.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s