In November, I met the amazing Ragen Chastain at a conference. She was the keynote speaker and blew the minds of college health professionals about Health at Every Size. During one of her talks she explained that many people are currently experiencing a “bad breakup with exercise.” That phrase was a gift to me – I finally have the words to describe my fraught and complex relationship with exercise.
I was never an overly active kid. I loved to read, play with plastic dinosaurs, and find salamanders in the woods. I hated gym class. I did not like sports. Nor did I like hiking or cross-country skiing, my parents’ favorite activities. Once I hit puberty my body became soft and pudgy and my dislike of physical activity was no longer just a personality trait – it became a flaw. It became an indicator of my laziness and bad attitude, or at least, that’s how my parents seemed to interpret my spirited protests. I quickly understood that I was being forced to go hiking because I was fat. My mom encouraged me to go to the gym with her. I felt out of place there and embarrassed. My presence in this dark, smelly, scary adult space was punishment for being a fat and lazy kid.
I didn’t touch exercise again until my junior year of college. My university required everyone to take a certain number of gym credits and I signed up for a step aerobics class I had heard good things about. I loved it. The instructor was an athletic female coach who was all about strength and fitness, not about appearance. She wore a giant t-shirt and long, baggy gym shorts. I started coming to the gym a few times a week and doing the elliptical machine, crunches and pushups. I signed up for Pilates and a strength-building classes even though I had already fulfilled my Phys Ed requirements. It felt good. It was a happy time for me. I finally was developing some positive experiences with exercise.
In 2009, I moved to Boston to begin my first full-time job.I got myself a gym membership. I started doing Weight Watchers with a coworker, and religiously tracked every morsel I ate. I signed up for personal training. I went to the gym at least 5 times a week. My sessions at the gym now lasted about 2 hours. I would start with 15 minutes of cardio on the elliptical to warm up. Then I would do 30-45 minutes of strength training. Then I would do 45 mins-1 hour of cardio – rotating between the elliptical, stairmaster, and bike. Then I would stretch for 20 minutes. For a month or two, I added another 15 minutes of ab work each night before I went to bed. I turned down offers to go to dinner or evening events in order to go to the gym. I knew that I needed at least a 3-hour block of time to do my regular workout, shower, and change; there was simply not enough time to do anything else on a weeknight. I had no hobbies to speak of, besides working out. I did this for about a year.
Everyone thought I looked great. I lost 25 lbs and fit into size 8 pants for the first time since high school. For a brief period, you could actually see my ab muscles when I flexed. I could wear really short shorts. I ate mostly processed frozen dinners, raw vegetables, and Greek yogurt (no time to cook). I got compliments from friends, coworkers, and my family. Guys asked me for my number. My parents no longer chided me for my behavior; now they were asking me for tips. They soon signed up with personal trainers themselves.
I was down to 145 lbs, but I was convinced that I needed to get to 125. I believed that was considered “normal weight” or “healthy weight” for a woman of my height. I was excited and happy about the changes I felt and saw in the mirror, but I in no way considered myself “done.” I was in the best shape of my life, but I still thought I was fat. And according to my BMI, I was technically still “overweight.”
Then I started grad school. I was working full-time and taking a full course load at night. Suddenly, there was no time to go to the gym. I had night classes and homework. I still tried to go as often as I could, but if I wasn’t able to complete my full 2-hour workout, it felt like failure. A waste. Moderation was simply not in my vocabulary. My new body was slipping away.
Soon I become so mentally exhausted that I had no room left for tracking Weight Watchers points. I had no time to go grocery shopping. I started living off of cafe sandwiches, takeout, and Red Bull. My beloved trainer experienced some health problems and had to retire. The trainer assigned to replace him was a douchebro jock who kept talking about getting me a “hot bikini body” and I hated him. Eventually, I stopped going to the gym altogether. And, naturally, I started to gain weight. Like so many people, I ended up gaining more than I had lost.
Three years later, I am the heaviest I’ve been in my life. My parents have expressed their concern, and I have pushed back on their well-intentioned but incredibly painful statements with every ounce of spirit in my body; I will not feel like a worthless fat girl again. And no, exercise is not so simple as “Just do it.”
For most of 2013 I was sedentary. I had multiple false starts as I tried to “get back into the gym.” Each time I returned, there was a new manager at the personal training company who would spot me on the elliptical and approach me, saying “Congratulations on taking the first step towards a better you!” or some bullshit like that.
I wanted to punch them every time. I am already a better me. I have hobbies now. I have friends. I have a life.
Then the manager would encourage me to try personal training because “beginners always need someone to show them how to do things properly.”
“FUCK YOU, I am NOT a beginner,” I would think.
“If you only knew me when…” And then my anger would dissolve into shame. I was embarrassed at failing so spectacularly.
But looking back on it now, I wonder how could I have done anything else but fail. My Biggest Loser-esque workout regime was extreme and unsustainable. Dieting was unsustainable. My abs were unsustainable. And no matter how thin or muscular I got, I always thought I was fat. I always needed to lose more. I was never not unhappy with my body. Losing weight did not improve my body image whatsoever.
In 2013 I vowed to stop dieting forever and began the long process of making peace with my body. Though I was making progress on the eating and body image fronts, I was still having a really hard time with exercise. Friends would say, “Couldn’t you just go to the gym for like 20 minutes? Couldn’t you just take the stairs? That’s better than nothing!” The thought of going to the gym for 20 minutes or taking the stairs was foreign and confusing. How could you do anything worthwhile in 20 minutes? I would never get my abs back by going to the gym for 20 minutes. I would never lose 40 lbs by taking the stairs. It became obvious that thinking of physical activity in moderate and sustainable terms was going to be extremely challenging for me.
I spent a lot of time thinking of ways to get active that would be fun and sustainable. I didn’t come up with any radical new ideas. There was yoga and hiking, which I have learned to like now that it isn’t mandatory and I can choose to do it on my own terms. But I haven’t found a yoga studio I like yet and hiking is difficult to do on a regular basis when you live in a northeastern city. I kept coming back to the gym – the first place I ever really enjoyed exercise.
But I was, as Ragen deftly stated, going through a bad breakup with the gym. The gym had ghosts of my thinner self in every mirror. The gym was full of people who would assume I had never worked out before. And I still never had enough time to do the kind of workouts I felt were necessary. “Do it right or don’t do it at all” would echo in the back of my head.
I took my time. I thought about things. I let myself get comfortable with tenants of Heath at Every Size. I practiced self-compassion. I forgave myself for “failing” and gaining weight. But most importantly, I worked on letting go of the idea that I could someday be 125 lbs or “get my abs back” or achieve the extreme physical transformation I did back in 2010. This has been, and continues to be, the hardest part. There is a very real sense of loss involved in abandoning the idealized, aspirational vision of yourself that’s been in your head since you were a teenager.
Then I agreed, for the first time in my life, to participate in a fundraiser stair climbing challenge. I knew this would force me to get back to the gym, and it did. The stair climb event is two days away, so last week I forced myself to return to the gym for the first time in many months.
Walking in the door was really hard. I could barely finish my first 20-minute cardio workout on the cross trainer. Five days later, I can do 30 minutes without too much difficulty. I think it’s amazing that my body can adjust back so quickly after so long. I am grateful for its strength and responsiveness. I suppress the faint urges to pull my scale out of storage.
This time, I’m trying to commit to realistic goals. 25 minutes. 30 minutes. Mostly cardio, with some Yoga Meltdown or free weights every now and then when I want to work on building strength. No more than 45 minutes per workout, 3-4 days a week.
Workouts that will help keep me active and give me the health benefits I’m looking for, but won’t consume me. Workouts I can squeeze into my busy life without having to sacrifice other hobbies or time with friends. Workouts that have absolutely nothing to do with losing weight or achieving a “hot bikini body.” Those are the kind of workouts I am aiming for now.
I’ll have to wait and see how it goes, but I’ve got a good feeling about this “moderation” thing. Maybe it could work for you too.