Tuesday, March 4, 2014

A Beautiful Addiction - the ugly side of exercise

Roya and I were handing out flyers at a local gym for a special series of meetings we were planning in our SiLC Katy church last fall. Roya is a fitness enthusiast, a former aerobics instructor and formerly a workout addict - literally.  For her to give her life to God and reject the negative attitudes she had wallowed in for many years, giving up exercise had to play a crucial part.  For the rest of us, changing  for the better means that we really should be exercising more, but Roya was on the opposite end of the spectrum.

We watched the many clients of this gym stream past with their backpacks and bottles of water, heading to their classes - lots of stern and unhappy looking faces.  Few took the flyer or wanted to be bothered to talk to anyone.  But in half an hour to an hour, those same unhappy people were loud, rambunctious and pumped!  They came out all riled up, talkative, confident, and unrecognizable from the grumpy people who had just passed us before.  Everybody wanted to talk now, and everybody was happy to get the flyers and even promised to come to the event.  "Awesome!  I'll be there!  Thanks!  You guys are great!!" I wondered if their bodies had been invaded by aliens.

Roya knew just what was going on.  "It's all those endorphins!" she told me with a knowing smile.

There's noting wrong with that, is there?  I remember how good it felt on the softball and volleyball teams in high school.  I remember my jogging days and loving the thrill of going faster and farther, or mountain climbing with my dad and feeling proud that I wasn't even breathing hard when I'd reach the top.  Exercise is supposed to be good clean fun, healthy and hearty.  But for the first time that morning, I saw a very ugly side to it.

This is what she explained:  There are many successful women who have a past they are ashamed of, who have an emptiness inside of them, and who know that they have to do well on their jobs, take care of their homes and families, to keep up the appearance of success.  They don't want to escape their pain through drugs or alcohol since they have so much at stake.  So they often turn to exercise, perhaps some extreme sports, an active social life and a fast-paced life, as a remedy.  Not only do they get the high that comes from exercise, but they get the social status that comes with the side benefits of being svelte and strong.  They can look like Wonder-Woman and drown out the emptiness and shame.  It seems like a win-win.

For most of us couch potatoes, exercise is painful starting from zero, but once a certain barrier is broken, exercise becomes a powerful drug.  Those endorphins create such a sense of euphoria, plus confidence, plus physical strength, plus a leaner body, and for those who are unwise, an overblown sense of superiority, that it's worth all the pain of getting that high.

For a time, that superiority can sustain these women through all kinds of stressful situations.  A crumbling marriage, hateful children and a overly demanding job.  They have the extra testosterone to chew out the people who irritate them, and keep their foot on the heads of people who they think don't deserve to rise over them.  They can feel powerful and indestructible for a good amount of time, and their sarcasm is sharpest and funniest when their pumped.  It's exhilarating to be able to cut people down and make people laugh all at the same time, and exercise gives you that aggressive mental edge.

But when the high starts to fizzle and reality sets in, the workout addict can become miserable.  She has to find her fix.  If she isn't high, just stay out of her way.  She's just one more grumpy face heading to the gym.

Of course I'm not trying to say that exercise is evil, just that anything that appears to be "good" and healthy can become twisted when used to fill a space only meant for God's Spirit.  Self-esteem can be a dangerous thing to pursue.  Women and men who want to feel that they deserve to be looked up to and admired because of their physical bodies, are chasing after an illusion, much like a heroin addict is chasing after happiness.

After reading over this post, Roya just texted me this:

"Sexuality is power in this world, and if you are failing in every area of your life, sexuality becomes your worldly effort to make it.  I became an empty, arrogant, violent weapon with a mean right hook.  Think about that show, 'The Biggest Loser.'  Those people are told that if they lose weight they will successfully be relieved of the pain and suffering in life.  That is a lie we lap up like stray dogs!  I have tried to fill the void with everything this world offers, but throwing away all those old habits, behaviors and thoughts for God, was the hardest challenge I have ever encountered, but the only thing I can boldly say has brought results!  After meeting you in the Succeed in Marriage Course, I gave up alcohol, friends, antidepressants, bar-hopping, and had a desire to go back to law school.  I automatically lost 20 pounds just from giving up beer.  I am not a slave to any of that any more, I am free to live in balance."

That was a year ago, and since then Roya began to seek God in the church and be set free from all the evil of her past.  She still loves to exercise, but now that she has filled her life to overflowing with the Holy Spirit, her enjoyment of a healthy lifestyle is just a secondary part of caring for the temple of that Spirit.  Exercise is no longer is an end-all and be-all in her life.  All the emptiness is gone,she is full of joy, and she can overcome stressful situations through God's power now, instead of trying to fool herself into believing that she was all-powerful.

As for me who has gained an undisclosed amount of pounds since my trip to Brazil …

I'm not an exercise addict in the least.  I'm hitting the treadmill again once I get back home, and if I try hard enough I just may start to like it again.  Promise.