Exercising when it’s not about vanity

April 21, 2010 | 37 comments

My history with exercise goes something like this:

A macabre dressing room experience prompts me to make a fist-shaking proclamation that — no, seriously this time — I’m going to get in better shape. The first day I start exercising, I’m motivated to push through the pain by a vivid image of myself looking awesomely cute in a pair of size 10 jeans. I actually lose a couple pounds and start shooting off my mouth about how I’m really going to keep up with this, even though it’s only been a week. Approximately 3.6 weeks into the new routine, I realize I hate exercising more than I hate my current jean size and give up in disgust.

From age 15 to 32, that cycle repeated itself on about a 10-month loop. I kept thinking that my vanity would be strong enough to fuel my efforts at exercise, that the payoff of looking how I wanted to look would be worth the pain of exercising. (Let me add the big disclaimer that I’m not suggesting that everyone who exercises to look better or lose weight is doing it out of vanity; I’m only talking about myself here.)

Then, after my conversion to Christianity, things began to change.

A little over a year ago, I began working on my relationship to food. After finally praying about what I should do with some food-related issues I had, I received the thunder-and-lightning insight that I needed to distinguish between gluttony and addiction, and deal with both separately (I summarized all that here). All of this happened during my fourth pregnancy, which was the perfect time for me to work on this: since the possibility of weight loss was off the table, for the first time I could address these issues without making it about vanity.

Doing that “Saint Diet” (as I call my new way of eating) has made me focus more on how I can structure my life to make sure that I’m not unintentionally sabotaging my spiritual growth and ability to serve God by feeling physically worse than I need to. That’s not to say that you have to feel great to grow spiritually, of course — many of the saints shined God’s light most radiantly when they were in pain and ill — but I have found that when I feel bad simply because I’m not taking care of myself, I do not have peace about it. When I’ve prayed about it, I get the message pretty loud and clear: “This needs to change!”

It was just that type of situation that recently brought me back to the subject of exercise once again — only from a whole different angle than I’d ever approached it before.

Despite how much better I’ve felt since doing the Saint Diet, I still often found myself with less energy than an otherwise healthy 33-year-old woman should have. Something felt incongruous: on the one hand, I’d pretty carefully discerned that there were certain things I was supposed to be doing right now, and doing well — the duties of daily life with four little kids, keeping my house in order and food on the table, certain side projects, etc. There have been seasons when I felt like I was supposed to relax and do the bare minimum; this wasn’t one of them. And yet I didn’t have nearly the energy to do the work that I thought God was calling me to do.

I was open to seeing a doctor, getting on medication, accepting that I had misunderstood the things I was supposed to be doing in daily life right now, or whatever — I just wanted to know what the right path was.

After a long period of thinking, praying and consulting Dr. Google, it occurred to me that I should at least try to get more physical activity before I moved on to other solutions. I thought I already did enough: I walk to the mailbox at least once a week, and I can’t always change diapers while remaining in a sitting position on the couch. You’d think that that type of Olympian exertion would leave me fit as a fiddle, but God and my body teamed up to suggest that maybe, just maybe, it might help if I moved a little more.

This sounds lame, but I guess you could say I felt “called” to exercise in order to better serve God and my family. (I know. God calls some people to save thousands of starving people; he calls me to run around the block. My spiritual life is not very exciting.)

So I started jogging. I didn’t create any grand plan, I just put on my running shoes and ran around the block one evening. I did it again the next day, and then a couple days after that. And, sure enough, I started to feel better. My energy increasingly matched up with the level of activity I felt like I was supposed to be engaging in. That was a few months ago, and I’ve been doing it regularly ever since.

Given my temperament as an utterly exercise-averse person and my dismal history with keeping up with exercise routines, it is really weird to be a regular jogger. I was thinking about it the other evening, wondering why my efforts seem to be sticking for the first time in 17 years, and I realized:

My motivation is completely different.

Every other time I’ve attempted exercise, it was a tool I was using to try to find happiness in myself: if I looked a certain way, weighed a certain amount, could wear a certain style of clothes, then I would find peace and happiness.

And yet my laziness knew something my rational brain did not: it won’t work. It’s fool’s gold. You’ll be happy for about three days while you stare at yourself in the mirror and then that exact same angst will pop up again, only in a different part of your life. And so I’d quit, yet again.

I’ve seen almost no external results from my new jogging efforts; I haven’t been weighing myself, but it doesn’t seem like I’ve lost any weight. And yet I’ve had an easier time keeping up with it than any of my other adventures in physical activity — even the ones that netted huge “scores” on the scale.

It’s a lesson I first learned with my love of writing, that I continue to learn in so many areas of life: when you do something because you think it is going to bring you peace and joy in and of itself, the whole thing is doomed to collapse. But if it’s done out of service to God, with the final aim of deeper union with him, your efforts will bear more fruit than you could have imagined.

I don’t mean to overblow this insight; I’m not quite ready to start my own cause for canonization just because I’m running around the block and not losing weight. I’m not even trying to suggest that my motives are 100% pure in terms of doing it to better serve God by serving my family and others. I just wanted to share the simple lesson that I’ve learned in this situation and with so many other little endeavors in my life: that it’s easier, simpler, and the burden is a whole lot lighter when your final aim is God.


  1. Clare

    That is so weird! I had a really similar realization over lent. I was just baptized and confirmed in the Church this Easter (your blog really helped me get to where I am today! Thank God for your writing!) and a huge part of the whole "what's this fasting part about?" question lead me to start re-examining my food/body issues from a spiritual place. Instead of snacking when I'm stressed, I try to call upon God for help with my anxieties instead. It's a beautiful change.

    I've started jogging recently as well, and I love it, which is so weird to me, as I've always dreaded exercise, especially stuff like aerobics classes (they give me panic attacks!). I think the introvert loner in me really responds to blowing off steam in a way that can be meditative.

  2. Marie

    "if it's done out of service to God, with the final aim of deeper union with him, your efforts will bear more fruit than you could have imagined."

    This is *exactly* what I needed to hear!

    PS – I love your style of writing (God willing, I"ll be as fluent… and less conformed to ranting…), and your former-atheist account is *very intriguing* as most of my friends/associates are atheist. So thanks for that too. 🙂

    God Bless you in all your work!

  3. Marilyn at Live First, Write Later

    At the risk of appearing like a stalker – are we related? I've had exactly the same thoughts/experience about exercise (and pretty much everything else you write here).

    Now if I find any scorpions around the house (in Sydney that should be unlikely) I will really be freaked out!

  4. blissful_e

    I'm a mum of littlies and could use a lot more energy for what I've clearly been called to do. Thanks for sharing this wonderful insight.

    I need to lift my eyes higher than the pair of cute jeans I used to wear.

  5. dottie

    Have I told you lately that I love you?

  6. Michelle

    You know, I have been coming around to this conclusion myself…but I needed your blog to put the words to it! Thanks! I actually am someone who has exercised for most of my life, but my motives haven't always been "for God"…but I have been trying to get something like that going and was reflecting over lent on the same sort of things you describe.

  7. Melanie

    Excellent timing! I needed this today and had some of my own realizations during Lent while practicing detachment from some of my favorite foods.

  8. Sandy C.

    Ditto for exercise for more energy! Add to that, at age 50 with the first signs of arthritis and stiffness from muscles and joints not used as God intended, everything feels better when I walk 2 miles each day. I tried jogging last summer and wound up with a severe bone bruise (lower knee) that prevented any exercise at all for nearly eight months. Now, I am taking it slowly but surely enjoying the benefits.

    My motivation to get out and walk every day is two-fold: my dog loves it so much and won't let me skip it and I never feel better than while I am walking, breathing deeply and moving those joints. My mood is improved, my energy is higher, I'm sleeping better, and I don't crave sugar or junk food. I pray out loud while I walk my remote country path. Ahhh, I can't wait for this morning's walk!

  9. Mama Bean

    my husband just started a jogging program, and it's got me thinking i could become more of a runner than the totally-not-a-runner i am now. this was a very timely message, thanks!

  10. Sleeping Beastly

    There must be something in the air. Just yesterday, I was praying (once again) for some help conquering sloth. In my case, my laziness isn't just about exercise, although that's part of it; it's mainly about taking care of nonessential – but still important – housekeeping. In the midst of prayer, I left off petitioning, and just listened, and the answer came in loud and clear: "Do it for them." Duh. If I'm doing it for myself, it will always be a struggle. If it's service to my family (and so to God) I'm already finding I have the motivation and energy to take care of it.

  11. Kate Wicker @ Momopoly

    Excellent post. I can really relate. In my eating disordered days, I exercised as a form of punishment or to purge myself of those "evil" calories. Nowadays I exercise to be a more healthful person. I have a whole new appreciation and respect for my body even though I'm not running long distances anymore. I'm only able to squeeze in shorter bursts of activity, but staying somewhat in shape has really helped me to have more energy and to be in a happier mindset, which both allow me to serve my family better. Plus, I've always believed I ought to make this temple called my body a pleasant home for God to dwell in.

    Thanks so much for sharing your exercise epiphany. As always, this post was insightful, humble, and humorous. Blessings!

  12. Colleen

    Can I just say how much I love how profound and funny you are at the same time. In case you didn't notice the other day, this is how I am too. You made me think this morning, and you made me laugh at myself too. I'm more of an Easter person when I'm laughing while I'm thinking, so thanks.

  13. Elizabeth

    What a wonderful thing! I have had a similar experience over the last year with food and exercise. My youngest is 2 and I have lost 60 pounds since she was born. This is nothing short of a miracle for me and I give all the credit to God. I don't remember ever weighing as little as I weigh now. Ever. I also have realized over the last year of exercising regularly (which I have never done in my life) that I have biceps! This thought never occurred to me, that I could have muscles that would some day creep out and show their faces! I thought that was only for people who, well, worked out:-) I too had a spiritual experience but God really knocked me on the head with a 2×4 to let me know that if I exercised and ate right, I could have what I had been asking for: focus, energy and a better relationship with Him. It's been a journey for me too and a very slow one. But I realized that is the only way it will work for me for the rest of my life. What I do now I don't consider a "diet", I consider it a way of life. I want to do what I do until I'm 90. I may get more active (right now, the most strenuous exercise I do is only twice a week but that works for me) as the years go by but that will come with time and a lot of prayer. I will be praying for you in your continued journey as well! It is quite an exciting one!

  14. Anonymous

    Thank you so much for this post! It was the exactly what I needed to hear! I also had an experience like this during Lent. I gave up "junk food," and found that when my reason was doing it for God, it was so much easier! I think I'm going to try to use my treadmill time as a time for prayer too and just give it all to God.

  15. Anonymous

    Thank you for this…I have 4 young children and I feel so drained, tired, etc. I started doing cardio exercising (when I can)for the first time in 12 years and I can't believe how much better I feel. (I have also been getting a bit more sleep even though my 2 yr old is still nursing in our family bed.) Emotionally I feel like I can handle all my daily tasks as before I felt like I was standing in front of a huge mountain of hopeless tasks. My anger and short temper has GREATLY improved when dealing with my kids. I feel so silly to have this epiphany of the importance of sleep and exercise after 4 kids of struglle but it is VERY hard to get sleep and exercise with kids but something necessary to live one's vocation!

  16. Alisa

    LOVE the motivation clarifications. I really needed to hear this and can see this sticking with me as a litmus test. Thanks!

  17. Marjorie

    Hmm. Funny, but my spiritual director has been telling me for years to exercise (sleep and eat too – so deep and theological :-). I tell her I can't, it really isn't necessary as I have skinny genes and am already too thin, I don't have time because I have kiddos with me 24/7, I have no budget for the gym, yada, yada… I just hate it. hate. hate. hate it. I used exercise until after #3 was born. Once I lost all the weight, what was the point I wondered? Seems vain and self centered. No, it is about having the energy to do what God wants from me with less stress. Ick. If I wasn't too tired I might have to do more. I feel topped out already! Tired is easier but a passive aggressive spiritual cop out. Maybe it is time to re-examine my lack of motivation.

  18. Kara

    My family has self medicated with food and lethargy for generations. I have 2 kids under two and often comforted my exhaustion with cupcakes and Doritos. I started with the "No S" diet the day I came home after delivering my youngest and gave up flour and sugar for Lent. I felt noticeably better, but the feasting that accompanied this year's Octave threw me right back into the gutter.

    I went to Confession last Saturday and recounted to the priest my struggle with the "7 Deadlies". I was relieved when he recognized that my sinfulness was stemming from my physical weakness. He recommended a visit to my doctor and possibly medication. Though we are not really medicine people, I was startled that, through the Sacrament, I was instructed to take better care of myself. My first instinct was contempt for the priest. I felt he should have been telling me to "die to self" and deal with my iniquities. Can you believe I would so blatantly dismiss a priest in persona christi? Anyway, after discussing it with my husband, I realized that the next step to health was to fully resume the No S sans flour/sugar diet and begin an exercise regime. Your post is both timely and informative. Thank God for your apostolate!

  19. Laura

    This is soooo me! I know I need to exercise for exactly the same reasons, I've had the same cycle of failure and what you are saying makes perfect sense. I, too have found that when your motives are more pure, it goes a lot easier. Why is it, then, that I still haven't gotten off my rear end?????
    God Bless.

  20. Anonymous

    That is so funny! I had a similar experience. Even though I am not married, and don't have kids, I also felt called by God to exercise so that I can serve Him better now, and be better able to serve Him through my family when I do have one. Like you, I just go for a short jog, but I have found that it makes me feel much more confident and capable of doing what I am called to do.

  21. Diana

    I heard something on the radio this morning about this very topic. God asks us to take care of ourselves, including eating right, getting enough sleep and exercising. To not do so is being prideful. We can't give Him (or anyone else) our best without being healthy.

    I am certainly someone who needs to exercise. I know I would feel better.

  22. Tami Boesiger

    . . .when you do something because you think it is going to bring you peace and joy in and of itself, the whole thing is doomed to collapse. But if it's done out of service to God, with the final aim of deeper union with him, your efforts will bear more fruit than you could have imagined.

    Amen, sister!

    I recently started eating differently for the same reason. I felt I was too young to be feeling so old and sluggish. Much to my surprise, I've stuck with it for five months, have lost 30 pounds and feel so much better! My motivation, like yours, was this: I owe it to God to have my body function better. I need to be better for Him.

    I'm sure you'd agree we can't take credit for these new victories, "for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose." (Philippians 2:13)

    I relate to what you're saying here, Jennifer. It's not lame at all.

  23. V

    My son and your youngest little girl are a few weeks apart and I have long been impressed with what you were able to do in her first year of life with 3 other kids in tow.

    One thing I have realized about exercise and eating is that I want to model good behaviors. I want my son and other future children to see exercise as something fun, regular and normal.

    I'm really glad you've been jogging, sometimes it helps clear your head, sometimes it muddles things up, but it always gets the blood pumping and gives us energy to conquer new challenges!

  24. Sarah

    Have you ever heard of the "Light Weigh"? It's a program that was started by a Catholic lady in order to foster a proper relationship with food, all the while fostering a better relationship with the Lord. So many Catholic ideals, such as the VALUE of sacrifice and suffering, are discussed and related to food. It's been great for many folks, including my mom and several of her friends.

  25. Abbey

    The more I want to lose weight, the more weight I gain. I want to be thin, to wear all those cute clothes, I admit it – I am doing for vanity!!! How can I stop? I use my knees as excuses to not exercise; I use other physical maladies, true or imagined, to not exercise; I kid myself and I know I'm doing it, but I CAN NOT STOP! If there is one single thing that I cannot stand about ME is how I look. Little head, little hands and feet, FAT BODY. I look like a clown in a circus. I do not know where from I can draw the inspiration to exercise AND DIET "out of service to God". Just when I think I've conquered the biggest mountain (and I am thanking God for prayers answered), yet one more is upon me. I don't know ….. I was always thin when I was younger, didn't even have to work at it, and now … menopause, all the drugs for my various maladies, and I'm a ticking time bomb. I know, something must happen, and soon.

  26. Dawn Farias

    when you do something because you think it is going to bring you peace and joy in and of itself, the whole thing is doomed to collapse. But if it's done out of service to God, with the final aim of deeper union with him, your efforts will bear more fruit than you could have imagined.

    Yes and yes. I've started NOT overeating lately and it's been less to do with vanity and more to do with treating my body, God's gift to me, as it ought to be treated.

    I got to this point somehow through thinking of NFP. It is easy and obvious to me when practicing NFP that our bodies aren't to be used in manners outside God's intended purpose for them. A few steps later and I realized that applies to gluttony as well. The hard part is that we have to eat, & therefore make decisions about food, so frequently.

    And it's easier this way to not overeat, when I think about it from this different perspective. I should be able to stick with it as long as entitlement doesn't kick in any time soon.

    Thank you for this post. You have a knack for posting the things that I'm thinking about!

  27. Anonymous

    Which sort of answers your question in your previous post, right?
    You can't do this without God's grace, and …
    neither can I.
    I should pray about riding my bike to work again, shouldn't I.
    I'll get right on that.


  28. Marie

    What a blessing and an inspiration you are! Thank you for this post.

  29. 'Becca

    This is such an important insight! It's familiar to me even though I've never been overweight; I have a serious problem with headaches that are related to muscular tension, and I have a sick tendency to resist doing the things that prevent or alleviate headaches because I convince myself that pausing my "work" to "indulge myself" is wrong, that I'd be doing those things FOR ME rather than being selfless. But there is nothing selfless about forcing myself into a killer headache that eventually renders me unable to do anything but suffer; that's not useful to anyone!

    One thing that helps me is exercise of either the stretching or cardio variety. There's a lot of walking built into my daily routine, but stretching was one of those things I "didn't have time" to do "for myself." This year I made it my new year's resolution. I write "stretch" on my list of things to do each day, and I get to check it off if I've done any stretching at all, even just a few arm-circles while waiting for water to boil or something. It's amazing how putting it on the list changed my attitude: Now it's something I "have to" do, and I'm relieved to see it on the list because it's quick and easy to get done AND it gives me more energy for the other tasks!

    I recently learned a great strengthening exercises that helps tighten post-pregnancy tummy and is quick and fun, too!

  30. Anonymous

    thank you, this really spoke to me. i have had no energy and health problems and am trying to make myself exercise to feel better. it sounds like I better purify my intention. Your writing is excellent…good for you!!

  31. Barb

    Thank you for the inspiration. Although I consider myself an exceptionally healthy eater, the afternoons are always a difficult time for me. Yesterday I replaced my urge for snack foods with a 3 mile jog. Not only did I stay away from those foods which make me feel terrible but I enjoyed the time with myself – time to think and put the days events in order. It was definitely a refreshing time not only for the body but also the soul. I'm looking forward to doing it again today.

  32. Ellen

    I am a super grumpy beginning exerciser. Just took my second exercise class ever today. And I'm sore. I think the vast majority of younger women exercise with vanity as the primary motivation. And I have some smug friends who have ribbed me one too many times saying that that wasn't why the did it. I don't believe them. At all. And I'm kinda tired of what I see as their hypocritical posturing.

    But I'm willing to admit that I could be wrong. I sure don't have more energy right now. In fact, I am sore and tired and would completely give up if I wasn't vain. I am curious to find out if I do have more energy after this 9 week class is over. And if I do, and it's bettering my and my family's life and not just my abs, maybe I'll keep going…maybe.

  33. Lenetta @ Nettacow

    Great food for thought – I sure need to do *something*. I linked to this on my weekly roundup. Thanks so much for sharing!

  34. Amanda

    Running helps me clear my head, talk to God, and experience nature. (It’s also my little escape from holding down a household with three kids, although sometimes I take my two youngest with me in the double jogger.) I love running before most people are out of bed, and being out there thinking about God and this life He has given me as I watch the sun rise over the horizon. It gives me the energy to do all those things I am called to do as a wife and mother. On days when I get up and run, I am MUCH more productive throughout the day and I feel much healthier. Skinny jeans and leggings are just a perk. It’s those other things that I run for.

  35. Kaylan

    I am really enjoying your articles! They make me laugh and really think. I am a convert to the Church (since 1987) and right now I’ve been going through a lot of spiritual difficulties (well for several years now). I am hoping to learn from your own examples. I do understand what you mean by doing things for God but I’ve gone through a lot of suffering in all my pregnancies that I often get very down-and-out spiritually. I want to do the right thing for God all the time but I feel like I constantly fail. Worse, I’m a mother of 6 so I have to set a good example (not to mention my husband is not religious so its entirely up to me to be the “good” spiritual example in the family… not something that is easy to do alone in a family).

  36. Crucifix

    I think what you said above is a simple way of looking at yourself and trying to live healthier. Really inspiring…

    ‘…if I looked a certain way, weighed a certain amount, could wear a certain style of clothes, then I would find peace and happiness.”


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