How my injury helped me find a more gentle relationship with exercise

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. 

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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. 

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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. 

 
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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. 

 
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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??

 

Some Thoughts on Group Exercise

I love group exercise classes. In fact, I've seriously considered getting my group fitness certification several times. I even switched gyms this past December so that I could go to group classes again because I missed them so much. 

 
 

I love that I can pick a class depending on what I'm in the mood for or how my body is feeling. I love that it challenges me in ways that I most likely wouldn't do on my own. I get to try new forms of exercises. And it's way more fun/enjoyable than doing a workout at home or on my own. I can dance around a room without feeling dumb because there are 10 other women beside me who don't have a dancing background either. I love that it's an opportunity to make friendships that you wouldn't normally make outside of that class. It's a place you can belong and encourage other women (or men) to pursue health through moving their bodies. So hear me out, I love the concept of group fitness classes and what it can do for your body and mind. However, I also have a few issues with how it can be conducted. 

I went to a workout class today, and it really ticked me off, hence the post. Because of my history of abusing my body through restricting food and overexercising in the name of "health," I have to be very careful about what gym I join, which classes I go to, and how the instructor teaches or speaks during the class. Unfortunately, some group instructors cause more harm than good by the things they say and the ideologies they encourage. Here's a few examples of the underlying messages that are sometimes promoted during group exercise classes:

You can't trust your body: "Push HARDER!!" "Work through the pain!" "You are stronger than you think! Your body can go further than your mind thinks it can." These are just a few of the things I have heard in various fitness classes. Although different phrases said in various contexts, the basic premise is the same--you can't trust what your body is telling you. You shouldn't rest when it is tired, instead, you should beat it into submission. You shouldn't go at the intensity that feels good, you must match what everyone else is doing or how hard the instructor tells you to go. In the fitness world, we're constantly told that we just need to work harder and longer, regardless of how our body or mind feels. I would argue that we need to exercise our body intuition muscle more instead.

 
 

You need to change your body: "I know it burns, but if you want a tighter butt, you've got to keep going!" Advertisements for a spring break bikini body class. "This exercise is really going to tone _____." This one goes for how most people view exercise in general, but I often hear instructors making comments about how the class is going to change the way our bodies look. But why are they telling me that I'm not good enough and that my body needs to change? I know this is not what they are meaning to tell me, but that is the exact message they are sending. If my body didn't need changing, then there wouldn't be any comments about how the workout is going to do just that. 

Reducing exercise down to numbers or making it a punishment for food eaten or lack of movement: "We've burned X amount of calories so far today!" "You all should come to spin, we burn X calories for the entire class." "Did you know it takes 100 burpees to burn off one _______?" "I was so terrible this weekend. I ate ____ and didn't workout at all." I often hear comments about calories eaten or burned. And it's extremely triggering. I've made a lot of peace with exercise and my body. I have had to purposefully shift my focus from exercise for the purpose of burning calories to exercise for the purpose of making me feel good and benefitting my health. This message undermines that work every time (and really ticks me off). These comments are based in guilt and shame, and real health never results from shame. 

 
 

What you've done isn't enough, you need to do more: "After this class, come to my spin class. And be sure to come to HIIT tomorrow!" "Are you going to yoga after this?" Now I know that the entire reason they promote the next class is because they want/need participants in their classes. But I believe this is more in the self-interest of the instructors rather than the participants (oh boy, I probably just ruffled some feathers there). I also have to say that it's not just instructors that encourage it, I've often heard other women in the room talking about how their going to the next class. And for me, it often makes me feel lazy and as though I am not enough. But there is NO need for me to go to another hour workout class after the hour I just invested sweating, burning (oh how those muscles burn!), and huffing and puffing. There are times when a 20 minute yoga session may be helpful after a hard workout, but I don't need to feel guilty for only doing one class in a day.

And then there's the comparison game...this isn't the instructor's fault, it's a product of our culture and need for personal affirmation, but it's super easy to slip into. How many times have you berated your body because the girl's next to you is stronger, leaner, or faster? How many times have you felt guilty about the amount of exercise you do because someone in the room is talking about all the exercise they do or are going to do? It is so easy to go into a room full of women and compare our outfits, bodies, strength, ability, eating habits, etc. This can be the biggest trip up of all. Because of my propensity to compare and then feel inadequate, I purposefully avoided group fitness for awhile. I needed to be able to take care of my body without external factors influencing how I moved and how I felt about my body. Each of our bodies are different and have different needs. My movement and eating don't need to look like anyone else's. This quote below <3

 
 

So, what I would like to hear more of during group fitness?? Talk of the health benefits of movement, such as cardiovascular endurance, bone health, better balance, decreased tension in the body, and improved mood; a focus on strength and functionality and how it benefits our bodies in daily life; dialogue and celebration of what our bodies can do (they're pretty incredible and can do amazing things); encouragement to listen our body; and encouragement to give our body's rest. Let's get back to what movement was for in the first place, whole body health, not making it look a certain way. 

I would encourage you to listen to what your group instructor is saying and evaluate whether or not they are helpful to you physically and emotionally. Don't be afraid to break out of the mold and take care of yourself. Only you know what your body needs--listen to it!