Warning: this post contains highly personal content regarding body image and esteem.
Fitness and exercise are a huge part of my life, and ever since I ran a 12K in May, I really haven’t had occasion to talk about fitness. I want to change that though, because keeping my body healthy informs literally everything else I do. It is crucial to my well being and happiness! I figured the best way to start this conversation is to give a history of how I got where I am today.
I come from a family of athletes. Youth sports were the focal point of our household growing up. I have three siblings, and most of us were three sport athletes all through high school. One of my brothers even played junior baseball in college. It was simply expected that you would be involved in one sport or another year round. I played golf, lacrosse, basketball, and ran track. Needless to say, I was in good physical shape through high school. When I left for college, I stayed involved with some intramurals, but for the most part physical fitness fell out of my realm of concerns. Living in Chicago, I walked everywhere, so I stayed in decent shape through college. I never took care of my mental and spiritual health though, as this wasn’t really brought to my attention growing up.
Now, I love being physically and mentally active. I am not built to sit around all day or to be cooped up inside. I wasn’t always this way though in my adult life. Until two years ago, I was overweight. Finishing college and letting go of all my friends was really rough for me, and I spent a lot of time that year drinking beer and eating junk, alone in my studio apartment, watching the Sopranos. I got bigger and bigger slowly until all my clothes stopped fitting. I had no self esteem and hated my body. It wasn’t so much being overweight as it was being out of shape. I was still smoking casually, which just added fuel to the fire. I could barely walk up and down stairs without feeling winded. Hiking was hard, as my bones were carrying more than they should. I was embarrassed, but I just figured I had gotten my lot in life, and there was nothing I could do to change my body. I think it goes without saying that my mental health was in a pretty bad place.
Things really spiraled out of control once the headaches started. It all happened pretty abruptly. One morning, I woke up with an awful migraine and it didn’t go away for the next year. Every day – blurry vision, nausea, pounding headaches. More on that some other time though. Around the time the headaches started, I began walking four miles a day, not because I wanted to get in shape, but because I was lonely, had no friends, and nothing better to do. Walking also helped me get out of my head for a while. I hiked more and more, and didn’t really notice I was losing weight. I had replaced my wardrobe with lots of large clothes that hid my figure. My body image was so bad that I avoided looking at myself in mirrors. By the time I noticed changes in the way I felt, I had already lost a good deal of weight. This was encouragement to start “working out.” I had access to a free employee gym that was very close to my home. I checked out a bunch of fitness books from the library, and started writing my own workouts.
Over a six month period I went from overweight to underweight. Exercising had naturally prompted me to start eating healthier, more plant-based food. I was addicted to the results I was seeing in my body, so I started eating less and less. Obviously, where this was going was not sustainable. I was getting burnt out. The headaches really hadn’t subsided, because exercise had morphed from an outlet into an obsessive compulsive behavior. I started spiraling out again. Some junk food slipped back into my diet. I came to dislike working out. So I just stopped. I never gained a lot of weight back, but I did get out of shape again. After I hit rock bottom again, I decided I needed to actually come face to face with my issues and work with them. So about a year ago, I made a firm resolve to actually practice healthy exercise habits. I also started taking my mental health very seriously. This is when I started practicing mindfulness informally. Eventually I signed up for an MBSR class, and that turned out to be the last push I needed to truly begin the healing process.
I feel great about where I am right now. I take care of both my mental and physical health. My self esteem and body image have never been as positive as they currently are. I went through A LOT of ups and downs to get here though, and I can tell you – the two main mistakes I made were neglecting to educate myself and trying to do too much.
Information is Your Friend!
Fitness is no different than any other skill in your life – it is a skill and needs to be treated like one. Skills are learned behaviors achieved through education and practice. We don’t tend to think about fitness like this. In the beginning, I thought, “I want to get in shape – I’m going to start running.” Mistake! Running is a terrible way to try to get into shape, as it is hard on your bones and joints, and it takes a very long time to cultivate basic muscle strength. I had just assumed that running would make me healthier, without actually seeking information to confirm this assumption. Same with stretching. After running, I would stretch in the half-assed way I did when I was a child getting ready for a soccer game. It turns out stretching is actually a highly skilled practice. There is a right way to stretch and let me assure you – it’s not the way you learned in gym class. Stretching improperly creates short tense muscles instead of the long, lean, and loose muscles you want.
Most trainers will tell you form is everything. And your form when doing anything: running, lifting, stretching, biking, whatever, is a skill you have to learn. We’ve all seen people running about a million times. Running seems like a pretty intuitive, human practice, so you just automatically assume you already know how to do it. But if you are trying to run a few miles multiple times a week, you have to be careful about your form. Bad form leads to injuries and stunted muscles. It’s not about there being “one right way to run,” it’s about learning how to run in safe a way that will help you build the endurance and strength you desire.
I am a firm believer that you can never have too much information. The more books I read, the more trainers I talked to, and the more research I did online – it meant I gathered LOTS of information. I was able to hear many differing perspectives, sort out the facts, and then decide what was the best routine for me. Having plenty of information allows you to decide what will work for YOU, as everyone is different, especially when it comes to fitness. Do yourself a huge favor and educate yourself before jumping into a fitness routine!
Overtraining is B-A-D
A direct result of my initial ignorance was training too hard, too fast. I wanted to do it wall – cardio, lifting, yoga – to the point where I was spending 2-3 hours a day at the gym. My body might have looked great, but this wreaked havoc on my mental health. Eventually I burnt out and came to hate exercise altogether. I’m really lucky I never got seriously injured.
Pushing yourself well past your physical limits does not make you a badass, tough, or a “serious” gym rat – it just puts you at risk for harming yourself. Obviously exercise involves exertion, but it’s important to know and respect your limits. Coming to know your physical limitations is absolutely necessary no matter what sort of fitness you are practicing. I got caught up in “the high” of overdoing it – leaving the gym feeling completely beat. I felt like somehow that made me stronger or better than everyone else at the gym. In reality, it just made my day to day life more difficult and uncomfortable, because I was always so sore and borderline hurt. I was also always stressed and angry, because I had little free time. I spent so much time alone at the gym that I neglected all of my hobbies and relationships. I started to feel empty and lacked stimulation.
Now I recognize that the point of being in shape is to make my daily life easier – to have less pains and aches, to be able to perform more physical labor, to have more energy, to live longer. The point of being in shape is not to have a great body – although your body will naturally become more toned and fit if you exercise regularly and keep healthy eating habits. This was the big turning point for me. Realizing this simple truth helped me develop a balanced fitness routine that coexists peacefully with all other aspects of my life.
So that’s my fitness background in a nutshell. I would to love to hear other people’s conceptual ideas about “fitness” and “working out,” i.e. how you fit it into your daily life, why you choose the activities you do, etc. Next fitness post: a rundown of my current routine!