My relationship with food and exercise has been complicated, to put it mildly. They have both been so many things to me- a crutch, a punishment, a coping mechanism, a desperate attempt at control, a comfort, an obsession. In recent years, I’ve striven to develop a healthy relationship with food and exercise, but in a culture that delicately walks the line between encouraging healthy living and instilling an unhealthy obsession with eating and exercise, sometimes it’s hard to distinguish what is good and normal, and what is unhealthy and borderline sinful.
For someone who has battled an eating disorder, our modern culture can be a bit confusing. I’ve heard of people who have refused to offer much-needed help because they needed to get their daily workout in. I’ve known adults who have stopped receiving the Eucharist in the form of bread because they’d chosen a gluten-free lifestyle. I’ve felt judged for my consumption of bread, dairy, and sugar at one time or another. With so many new diets, exercise forms, and recipes for discovering “your perfect body,” I’ve been left scratching my head more than once. I’ve also felt the need to defend my own choices more than once, by well-meaning people who believe that my habits are not entirely healthy. But I feel healthy, and happy, so am I doing something wrong? If my goal is to be healthy and happy, I’m inclined to believe I’m on the right track.
Saying “no” to cake every once in a while should not be a crime, or considered a cry for help. Sometimes you just don’t want cake, no matter how delicious it might be, and that’s okay. The problem is if you can’t say “no,” or you can’t say “yes.” It’s okay to just want to eat healthy. Cake is not essential to life (though it might be said to add to it). But if you can’t say “no” to cake, even if you want to, the line between health and obsession might have been crossed. And similarly, if you can’t say “yes” to cake from time to time (barring an allergy of course), you might have crossed the line, but towards the other extreme. Extremes are rarely healthy, and virtue often lies somewhere in the middle.
Daily exercise shouldn’t be a crime, unless you’re using it as a punishment. This is one that I’ve struggled with from time to time. After the births of my children, I relied on running to help prevent post-partum depression (or in the case of my first, to recover from it). I work out nearly every single day, even if it’s just for ten minutes. The only exception is when unforeseen events prevent me from getting to an evening workout (I NEVER mess with bedtime, even for exercise). Some people have suggested that my need to work out is evidence that my habits remain disordered, but I consider my workouts to be a healthy coping mechanism, as well as a source of energy and recovery. Generally speaking, I don’t think daily exercise is a bad thing, unless you’re using it to punish yourself or if you experience feelings of losing control or anxiety if circumstances prevent you from getting your regular workout in. I think daily exercise can be healthy as long as your priorities are in order. Regular exercise can make you feel better, more energized, and more prepared to face the challenges of the day, and none of that sounds like a bad thing.
Fitness and nutrition are supposed to be about health and wellness, not obsession and control. Sometimes I suspect our culture tips a little too far into the latter category. We become so concerned about health that our obsession teeters on the brink of unhealthy. I’m inclined to believe that virtue generally lies on the middle road, tucked between two unhealthy extremes. Many of us turn to unhealthy habits for a sense of control, but in truth, these vices inevitably control us. When you can’t say “no,” or alternatively, when you can’t say “yes,” you are not in control. You are enslaved. The healthy medium means having the freedom to say “yes” or “no,” according to your properly ordered desires. That’s true freedom. That’s true health.
I’ve experienced the burden of enslavement before. I know what it feels like. It does not feel like freedom. It does not feel like control. It feels like fear. It feels like anxiety. It feels like loss. It does not feel good. I’ve known what it feels like to be enslaved, but I’ve also known true freedom. I know what it feels like to be healthy, to be well. And that’s how I know that sometimes our culture pushes us towards obsession from time to time. That’s how I know that when it promises health, it might just be leading you down the dark path away from health. I do appreciate the concern of others, but I am happy to say that I am well, and I hope you are well too.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!