Updated: Sep 2, 2021
Yes, per the title, I have actually tried to outrun my anxiety. I started struggling with anxiety big time in high school. My mom coined my brooding stress as being “on edge.” Whenever I was on edge, she would advise me to simply go for a run! So, I would run long, hard and fast until I felt tired and less anxious. During high school, running quickly became my source of relief and approach used to calm me down. I ran on top of playing three high school sports… needless to say, I had a lot of anxiety as evidenced by how much I exercised to try to shake it.
I always thought that by wearing me out, exercise would cause me to be less ‘on edge’ or less attentive to what I was anxious about. It felt like I could run the anxiety right out of my body by making myself too exhausted to be anxious. During this time, I also struggled with guilt that I was turning to exercise to cure my anxiety instead of going to God for help. Granted, I would spend time praying on many of my long runs, but it didn’t feel right that running seemed to help me more than praying did.
However, there were long-term effects from leaning on exercise to outrun my anxiety. While running helped my anxious symptoms temporarily, I ended up being so exhausted from too much exercise that my anxiety only ended up increasing and increasing until I reached the bottom of a pit where the only thing left to do was depend on God alone for help! Since that time, I’ve been very hesitant about turning to exercise to help with my anxiety and have often been confused about its role in my life. Recently, I’ve gained a new perspective surrounding anxiety and exercise after reading John Ratey’s book, Spark, The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (see my book review). It is true that exercise can help alleviate anxiety and it is true that ultimately God alone can heal anxiety. I just had to marry the two ideas!
Ratey explains that “In the body, physical activity lowers the resting tension of the muscles and thus interrupts the anxiety feedback loop to the brain. If the body is calm, the brain is less prone to worry. Exercise also produces calming chemical changes. As our muscles begin working, the body breaks down fat molecules to fuel them, liberating fatty acids in the bloodstream. These free fatty acids compete with tryptophan… which then is immediately put to use as the building block for our old friend serotonin. In addition to the boost from tryptophan, the higher brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels that come along with exercise also ramp up levels of serotonin, which calms us down and enhances our sense of safety.” Long science-y story short, exercise serves your brain by helping you feel less stress, among many other benefits.
This book re-enforces the idea that God designed our bodies to move and be active. When Adam and Eve were called to cultivate and steward the earth, they had to do some hard labor to work the earth and garden to provide food for themselves and their family! To fulfill His purpose through each of us, God created bodies to be consistently active. When we are consistently inactive, we are going against God’s design for our bodies. No wonder people in our society are often so stressed! Since most of our work and jobs these days require little to no activity, it’s so important to fit exercise into our regular routines. And as Spark also taught me, not only did God design exercise to be good for our bodies, but for our brains. “Exercise controls the emotional and physical feelings of stress, and it also works at the cellular level. But how can that be, if exercise itself is a form of stress? The brain activity caused by exercise generates molecular by-products that can damage cells, but under normal circumstances, repair mechanisms leave cells hardier for future challenges. Neurons get broken down and built up just like muscles - stressing them makes them more resilient. This is how exercise forces the body and mind to adapt” (Ratey 60). This is big, people! What better way to steward our brains than for the glory of God? It is important and useful to strengthen our minds to be stronger in Christ, more resilient in fighting temptation or sinful thoughts, reminding ourselves of truth, remembering God’s faithfulness, and memorizing and meditating on the Word. The Word even calls us to use our minds:
Isaiah 26:3 “You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you.”
Philippians 4:8-9 “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”
Colossians 3: 2 “ Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.”
God has gifted us with exercise to help us build up minds that are more steadfast, think righteous thoughts and focus on the eternal, spiritual things.
I believe that God is the ultimate source of freedom, healing and hope for our anxiety. God also created our bodies to feel stress relief from exercise! It is by his design that I can run to calm and soothe my anxieties. However, he did not create exercise to solve stress and anxiety; that is something only God can do for me. While I used to feel shame for exercising to relieve my anxiety, I now view exercise as a good gift from God that can be used as a tool to pacify anxiety and stress. Through Ratey’s research and the work of the Holy Spirit, I have gained a new perspective of 1) how God designed our bodies to fight anxiety through activity and exercise, and 2) it’s not the exercise that brings me stress relief, but it’s God working through exercise to do so by the way he created me.
So here are some major takeaways today: It’s okay to go take a run or exercise when you’re feeling anxious. It will likely help! But consider exercise as a gift or tool that can calm down your mind and body, in order to set your spirit into a posture of prayerfulness and dependence on God. Use exercise to clear your headspace to be able to clearly focus on God and pray for wisdom, peace and healing regarding the root of any stress or anxiety. For God says “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:6-7). It is humbling when we recognize we can’t cure our anxiety on our own, through exercise or any other worldly medium, as we are fully dependent on God for healing. He even calls us to surrender or cast our anxieties on Him. He cares more than anyone about what is stressing us out and has the power to take those worries from us!
Exercise can bring us closer to God if we wield it to steward our bodies for his glory and leverage it as a tool to bolster our minds to better focus on God and learn to love him all the more! Among the multitude of various reasons why exercise is considered “good for you,” the main motivation should be to glorify God with all that you do (Colossians 3:23)!
Ratey, John J. Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Little, Brown and Company, 2008. Print.
God. The Holy Bible.