Monday, October 7, 2013

Remove the Shackles; Exercise in Freedom

Ever since I was a teenager, I would imagine that heaven would somehow include this scene:

I am running, my heart is beating quickly, yet steadily.  There is nothing behind me but beauty, nothing ahead but the magic of a sunset, the glory of the sky, the swaying of the trees.  There are my footsteps, as light as dragonfly wings, as free as grace.  I feel no pain in body or in breath; just a steady, certain gaze and joy abounding deep in my soul.  I can run as far and as long as I want to without growing weary.  I do not need rest.  I am boundless.  I am liberated.  I am graceful.  I am doing this for no other reason except that it is an act of worship to the one true God, that Maker of this moment and all of the moments before, and all of the moments yet to come.  Honest, passionate, heavenly, chainless running - just me and God and the breeze and His majesty.

Wouldn't running and exercise be so beautiful if it was that pure and purposeful?  Let's be honest: exercise is often one more thing on our to-do list (and our to-do brain), demoralizing us if it doesn't get done.  It's something that stresses us out until we get to the gym, hit the road, hop on the trails, etc.  Once it's over, we often feel better.  But sometimes we don't truly feel better. Sometimes we did it because we had to burn a certain number of calories, we had to make sure our shell(body) is looking good/doesn't get fat/loses some flab/gets that six-pack.   And in a culture of "I-want-it-right-NOW," the results of exercise take a bit too long, and we feel worse instead of better because we're looking for an external result for our external efforts.

Before I begin talking too much about this, I want to be honest and clear about something... If we allow our bodies to get severely overweight, there is no freedom in this.  We are limited in our activities, we are hurting our organs, and we are putting our lives at risk.  Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit.  Let's give the Spirit a dwelling place in which it can work!  Similarly, if we are starving ourselves, become obsessed with exercise more than anything else, counting calories like it's a full-time job, craving (pun intended) to see bones protruding, lusting after six-pack abs, then we are just as sick as the overweight person.  Starvation, especially combined with overexercise, also puts our organs and lives at risk.  The Spirit cannot work effectively in this environment, either.  YOUR BODY IS A TEMPLE FOR THE LIVING SPIRIT OF GOD.  Our most important work is eternal work.  It's important that you know this before reading on.  Also, I'm talking to myself as much as I'm talking to all of you.  :o)

So, what if exercise was less an external effort, and more of a way to help energize us for our eternal effort?  What if it was even a little less about us, and more about God and other people?  In a culture obsessed with image, with ever-increasing pressures on women to be skinny and men to be "buff," the idea of exercise being about someone else might seem a bit asinine.  How does this work?

I used to use exercise to rid myself of the guilt that eating brought to me.  I would count calories meticulously, be sure to run miles upon miles per day, and still feel guilty after eating a small dinner.  My response to that guilt would be to run the next morning before work and class.  I would add an abdominal workout and push-ups at night.  I would pine and pine and pine after a perfect body.  I was less than a "perfect body," as if there is such a thing.  My son's dad Aubrey once came to pick up our son, and he looked at me and said, "I'm just waiting for the day that I come to pick Julien up, and I find you dead."  That moment was a bit of a wake-up call to me.  It changed my perspective just for a second, but those were words I revisited many times in the next couple of years as I slowly clawed my way toward freedom.  Would I die of a heart attack while I was out running, my son forever losing his mommy?  I worried.  I knew I wasn't free; I was exercising in bondage, chains clanking with each forced step.

Exercise is healthy, and God designed our bodies to respond very well to physical activity; we weren't created for completely sedentary lives.  I had lots of fun researching the way that exercise affects brain activity, and I became enthralled with the science behind God's design.  For example, study after study shows that exercise is a natural anti-depressant, relieving stress and anxiety because of the chemicals released in the brain.  Exercise enhances mood, releases endorphins (runner's high, anyone?!), and  actually generates new neurons.   If you are currently an exerciser, you know what I'm talking about!  

In order that these paragraphs don't get long and I lose you, I will simply list the positive effects of exercise on your brain.  We all know the benefits of what exercise does for your body, including your cardiovascular system.  Here is what exercise does the following for you and your brain:

1. Increases the size of hippocampus and improves memory
2. Increases cognitive function in children, adolescents, and young adults
3. Increases the levels of brain derived neurotrophic factors (has to do with serotonin and dopamine - linked with good mood and well-being) and improves neuroplasticity
4. Makes the brain more resilient to stress
5. Enhances your mood (often within five minutes!!!)
6. Normalizes your sleep
7. Increases the production of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that anti-depressents try to regulate
8. Alleviates depressive symptoms in those diagnosed with depression (obviously...)
9. May even prevent depression and anxiety !

The list could go on for much, much longer.  I don't need more than nine reasons, though.  Do you?  Exercise is created by God, we've been doing some form of it since creation, and we are meant to do it.  I understand that there are some of us who cannot because of physical conditions.  That is understandable, and there are other ways that we can get these benefits, often through means of personal expression...and, of course (most importantly), by connecting with God.  But for those of us that can, we should.

However!  and this is a big however, we cannot, cannot, CANNOT start worshiping self through exercise.  And this, my beautiful friends, is a tricky thing to do - a thing that I struggle with daily, a thing I have to keep in check with myself.  "Am I doing this to worship myself, or am I doing this to keep myself healthy enough to help others and give God glory?"  The latter is good, and is the light side to exercise.

As a woman who was a single mom for six years, I needed a way to keep my sanity.  I needed "me" time, a time which to reflect on not only myself, but on what I needed to get done and how I would accomplish those tasks.  Before Julien was born, I had already started a running routine.  When he was born, I felt tremendous guilt for wanting to run instead of spend time with him.  Eating disorders aside, there were many reasons for the "need" to get out and run.  However, no one ever told me, "Cherie, it's okay to take time for yourself.  It's healthy and it's good."  I had to figure this out on my own.  I noticed that on days I skipped my workouts, I was grumpier, more overwhelmed, and definitely more scattered in my accomplishments.  I felt feelings of resentment for all of the things I had to do "on my own," and went to bed with deep feelings of inadequacy.  I needed the time to run, yet it seemed CRAZY to even think that I "deserved" that precious time.  What kind of a mother wants to make time for herself, instead of her child?  These were my qualms, and yet EVERY mother knows that WE NEED TIME AWAY!!!  This is not because we are neglectful; it is because sanity is important in order for us to keep on nurturing!

Raise your hand if you're a mom or dad and ever needed a moment away.  Yep, that's what I thought.  Lots of us!  (If you're not yet a parent, take notes.)  Those lovely little bundles of joy are worth all of our tears, heartache, smiles, struggles, hugs, diaper changes, EFFORT ... but let's be real - you are the best you when you take a moment to remember that you are a human being just as much as you are a mom or a dad.  And since we already read about all of those God-given benefits to exercise, let's not pretend that taking a run or bike ride or weight-lifting session isn't the perfect escape.  Your body and mind will be healthier; if you pray while you're working out, your spirit will also be fed, AND you'll actually have MORE energy to give to those sweet little darlings (the tone of "darlings" is sarcastic or not, depending on the day).

If you aren't a parent, or your kids have left the house already, we still need to exercise.  But again, it's not out of self-worship, but out of well-being to better serve those around us.  If you exercise for no other reason, the BEST reason to exercise is to worship -- the second best reason is so that we can serve others with joyful, refreshed bodies, minds, and souls.  By helping yourself, you're helping others so much more.  And hey -- why not witness to people and be a LIGHT to others while you're at the gym/on the trail/etc.???  Try telling someone else how great they're doing, encourage them to keep it up, tell that God rocks, whatever you're comfortable with.

I have a friend who always says, "Looking good, Sunshine!" or "Great job!  Keep it up, Sunshine!" whenever we pass people while we run - no matter if she knows them or not.  I have always admired that attribute to motivate and inspire others, and have taken it upon myself to bring that attitude into my workouts no matter where I am (thanks, Danni! ;) ).

But we must also talk about the dark side of exercise.  There is a dark side.  We need to avoid it.

If you exercise because you're afraid you'll look disgusting if you don't, you are bound by exercise.  If you exercise because you have a set number of calories that must be burned or else, you are bound by exercise.  If you exercise because you hate what you see in the mirror, you're bound by exercise.  If you exercise because someone made a comment to you about your appearance, and that comment just won't get out of your heard, you're bound by exercise.

If you lift weights because you feel like an inadequate representation of a man, you're bound by exercise.  If you lift weights because having not having "bulk" isn't an option, you're bound by exercise.  If you lift in order to appeal to women, then you're bound by exercise (Dude, she's gonna love you with or without muscles if she cares at all about you!).

If you run because you ate, you're bound by exercise. If you run because you hate yourself,  you're bound by exercise.  If you run because you feel forced to, not freed by it, you're bound by exercise.

**HOWEVER, if you exercise because your health would suffer and you need to lose weight to stay alive, or to live a better life, please don't take any of the above into consideration over your health.  You can't help others if you're not here ... so if a doctor told you to, or if you just know you need to exercise to keep your heart ticking, then do it.**

I may have offended people by saying some of the things I just said.  But I once chained myself to exercise instead of letting God free me through it.  I don't want anyone having to reevaluate their psyches over and over again to come to the healthy conclusion.  I am saying it out of love and out of experience.  I'm saying it to free us.

Yesterday I ran with my husband.  Even he will tell you I wasn't in the best of moods while running, which is rare.  I was beating myself up during our run, and felt no better afterwards.  I realized the intention of that run was to remove the label of "lazy" from myself (we had had a wonderfully lazy morning together).  It wasn't a pure reason.  Later, I decided to run by myself, to be outside and enjoy God's beauty, to see what I could defeat in my head that made me feel inadequate.

It worked.  I prayed, I ran, I looked at the water, at the sky, and my soul just sang.  After the run, I sat on a bench and prayed to God - Lord, let my words be Your words.  What do I say to people about exercise?  What do I say?

These words flowed into my head, maybe they will mean something to you:
Grace Abounding, Peace Overflowing, Undying Love, Breeze that speaks....(long pause while I waited in silence).........Sovereignty.

I pray that each of you would find exercise to be an act of worship that makes you more energetic and effective to serve other people.  At the end of the day, it's not about what we do for ourselves - that doesn't last.  What do we do for others, to show them love, to give them hope?  How do we worship? These things matter.

Below: pictures from my run yesterday evening.

The Great Artist features His Autumn Sky in Winona.

Beginning of my run

Middle of my run

From where I prayed

God bless all of you!