Growing up, I hated formal exercise. I remember my family joining a local gym when I was in middle school, and I thought going was the worst thing in the world. Why in the world would you subject yourself to such torture?? And why would you make yourself sweat for no reason?!?! I was a fairly active kid playing outside or jumping on the trampoline, and I played volleyball and basketball in middle school. But you were not going to find me going to the gym of my own volition. No way, Jose.
And then one day, I decided going to the gym was a good idea. There was a lot that preceded that decision, but I won't get into that here. I decided it would be helpful because it would allow me to get closer to my goal of losing some weight. And then I decided it would be helpful for decreasing some of the anxiety and guilt I felt for eating more than I "should" have. My exercise wasn't too intense, but it was something that took high priority in my life. I hated going, but absolutely felt the need to.
Then for a while, I wasn't allowed to exercise. My therapist told me it wasn't a good idea (for mental and physical health reasons) and my parents fully backed her up. It was tough. Actually, ALL of that time in my life was tough. Fast forward to going to college. I wasn't engaging in much formal exercise (because let's get real, I was having way too much fun to have time for exercise!!), and I was eating more than I had when I was at home. My body had also been at a weight that wasn't sustainable without really disordered behaviors, so my weight started to creep up. And I became EXTREMELY uncomfortable about it. So I did what you're supposed to do, I decided I was going to start running. My family signed up for a relay and I started to train for the 5K leg. A month or so before the race, one of our teammates dropped out and I decided to take over the 10K leg for her.
The race was an absolute blast and I got bit by the running bug and decided I wanted to run a half marathon. That began my obsession with running, compensating for calories through exercise, and finding my identity in being a fast runner and intense exerciser. I ran several more half marathons throughout college. And although I look back on them with great fondness (I grew really close to the girls I trained with), I can now see how disordered it was for me. I HAD to workout every day. A workout didn't count unless I did quite a bit of cardio and I left absolutely exhausted. It got to the point that I was exercising twice a day on some days. I experienced extreme muscle fatigue, general apathy, and dizziness when I worked out. I never felt like my exercise was enough because I knew of other people who worked out harder and longer than I did. I desperately wanted validation that my hard work was enough. It never came.
Fast forward to my last semester of grad school. My husband and I trained for a half marathon together. It was my fastest pace yet and I got such a sense of accomplishment from all the hard work I put into it. During the race, I noticed a lot of lower back and butt pain. It didn't go away after the race and continued to get worse when I did certain exercises. The pain and tingling continued for another 6-12 months. It finally got to a point that I stopped running and even had to take a few weeks off and just walk. It was then that I started to reframe what exercise was and what it was for. I started to see walking as a form of movement that DID count as exercise. After backing off quite a bit from intense exercise, I finally decided to start physical therapy. I had to relearn how to do a lot of various exercises in order to engage the correct muscle groups. For awhile, my workouts were simply doing my physical therapy exercises. And those didn't include a whole lot of cardio. But I started to see a shift in the way I viewed physical activity. I was no longer willing to exercise at the expense of my body's wellbeing. And if I couldn't do an exercise properly, I wasn't willing to do it until I could. So that meant that I didn't engage in a lot of different exercises because my body simply couldn't do them correctly. I started to end a workout if I was tired, even if I hadn't completed the whole thing. I began to not stress out when I wasn't able to workout for a day, or even days. I realized that my worth wasn't hinging on how hard I worked out, how far or fast I ran, or how many calories were burned. I started to see exercise as a means of taking care of my body, not as a means of changing it to look the way I wanted it to.
In the moment, I never thought I was working out hard enough but am now able to recognize all of the harm I did to my body (fatigue, muscle imbalances, hormone imbalances, etc) in my quest for the ideal body and affirmation. And although my injury was incredibly frustrating and not working out was incredibly difficult emotionally, I'm so grateful for how it taught me to slow down and truly take care of my body.
If you struggle with a compulsion to hit the gym, I'd highly recommend taking a break, as well as creating some mantras you can remind yourself of when exercise becomes a form of compensation or identity. I'm no longer the fittest, fastest, or strongest, but I do have a strong sense of self-care, less anxiety and stress, and my body feels a whole lot better.
I'd love to hear about what YOU do to take care of your body??