My Breakup with Exercise

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.”

This too can be yours! Just eat hardly anything and exercise 2 hours a day for the rest of your life!

This too can be yours! Just eat hardly anything and exercise 2 hours a day for the rest of your life!

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 tenets 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.

Size 14 and that’s okay.

One Year of Not Dieting

In December, 2012, I made a New Year’s resolution to stop dieting. Forever. I’m proud to say that I have kept my resolution and for the first time in my adult life, I have gone a whole year without tracking a single Weight Watchers point. Why? Because dieting does not work for me.

Each time I committed to dieting I would lose weight and then, whenever I needed to focus my energy on other goals (like grad school) or went through a stressful time, I would gain it all back plus more for good measure. In addition to my personal experience, I have been reading a lot about the science of weight-loss and finding that it’s really not so simple as “calories in, calories out.” I could go into more depth about the research and what I believe, but that’s for another post. For now, I’ll share that it is my belief that thanks to dieting, I weigh much more than I would have had I just left my body alone.

Here are some reflections after a full year of not dieting:

Image1. Fat talk is everywhere. People who are concerned and self-conscious about their eating habits (read: most people) insist on ruining every meal you have together by exclaiming how unhealthy the food is or reassuring you that they never eat like this at home, etc. etc. At first it was hard to stop fat talking, but now – a year after breaking the habit – I find it profoundly annoying and intrusive because I’m still expected to join in. What I choose to eat at any given time is none of your business. I don’t need to justify or explain my choices to anyone, and I certainly don’t need to apologize for my choices.

My decision to stop dieting was, in some ways, a promise to stop judging myself every time I ate some food. But thanks to all the fat talk everywhere, I became hyper aware of how much everyone else is judging themselves or others based on the food they eat. If you are trying to retrain your brain not to associate these negative judgments with food, it’s really annoying to hear everyone else do it constantly. It starts to feel like everyone’s out to sabotage you – or at least your next meal.

2. Real food tastes amazing. Have you tried non-diet yogurt lately? Or coffee with milk and actual sugar? Holy crap. Turns out, food doesn’t have to taste like a chemical sundae. The other day I was eating a big, fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie that was given to me at a work training. And believe it or not, I couldn’t even finish it. Can you remember a time when you were not able to finish a diet cookie? Those things are about as filling as a celery stick and they taste like cardboard. And even though they taste like cardboard, you end up eating the whole box anyway because you’re so hungry and it’s either the cookies or a salad, but you’re so goddamned sick of salads and your bowels are a wreck because Weight Watchers prizes foods high in fiber and apparently the secret to weight loss is pooping all the damned time. So basically, you’re sitting there, choking down cardboard cookies, mentally exhausted from decision fatigue over whether or not to eat the cookies, feeling like a total failure because you ate the cookies, and wondering if anything makes any goddamn sense in this world anymore.

Dieting! Huzzah!

3. I am finally learning how to cook. I was never that interested in learning to cook, and dieting made cooking really simple to avoid. After all, it is much easier to buy pre-made, processed foods with the nutrition facts and portion sizes clearly labeled than it is to cook a dish and figure out how many Weight Watchers points it is if you used 3 sprays of non-fat cooking spray and substitute non-fat greek yogurt for everything else that might possibly contain fat and my god how does this bland, sorry excuse for food add up to 16 points per serving when there are no goddamned calories in it?

You know what I did instead of cooking? I ate Lean Pockets. Lean Pockets. If anyone wants to know the deep, dark truth about how low dieting can bring you, just tell them “I know someone who actually ate Lean Pockets.” Now that I’m not dieting and focusing on other healthy goals (like not eating so many chemicals) I am learning to cook. So far this year, I have learned to cook African sweet potato peanut stew, chicken marbella, stuffed tomatoes, mini Greek-style meatloaves with arugula salad, brussel sprout breakfast hash, sweet potato spinach mac and cheese, black bean enchiladas, escarole and orzo soup with turkey meatballs, and more! And even though most of these dishes didn’t turn out perfect and I had to do a lot more cleaning up, every single one was better than a fucking Lean Pocket.

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Yep. I made this.

I’m beginning to be able to eat more intuitively. I used to be just like Louis CK.

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Party food was the worst; if there was a bowl of chips or tray of mini quiches in the room, those savory treats would just not leave me alone. I’d be thinking about how many I could have, and once I’d had those, how many more I could have, and when I could have them again. Now, I am much less obsessive about food at parties. I have some if I want some – and more importantly, I know that I can have them if I want them. Now, I can actually stop when I don’t want them anymore. I actually don’t want them sometimes! It doesn’t sounds like a big change, but it feels super different. It’s like I’ve been granted a restraining order and I am no longer being harassed by bowls of chips.

Of course, this is a slow and gradual process. I still overeat sometimes, by accident and also not by accident. Still, I have started to be more in tune with how food makes my body feel. I’ve realized and accepted the fact that certain foods make me feel bad and other foods make me feel good. That may sound obvious, but while dieting my stomach was always off (so much fiber, why???) and so I focused on ignoring my body’s signals, cravings, and reactions rather than listening to them. Until recently, I didn’t know that mozzarella cheese turned my stomach or that big servings of meat made me feel gross. I knew what full felt like, but I didn’t really know what “satisfied” felt like. I never felt satisfied when I was dieting because I was never satisfied. How can you feel satisfied when you’re eating weird, calorie-free versions of food instead of actual food? Now that I can recognize satisfied, and enjoy that feeling, it’s easier to stop.

5. I haven’t lost weight. Yet. I won’t lie. I was really hoping that after I stopped dieting, my body would revert back to whatever it “naturally” would have weighed. That didn’t happen. Let’s be real. After years of dieting, the initial freedom to eat all the things was so novel and exciting that I definitely ate all the things. Unsurprisingly, I gained a little bit. (I stopped weighing myself when I stopped dieting so I am blissfully ignorant of the numbers.) This part has been hard and disappointing. But after more reading and reflection and discussion with health professionals, I’ve been reassured that this takes time. Longer than one year. After all, I’m just beginning to eat intuitively. I’ve also started working on my relationship with exercise – something just as complicated as my relationship with food. It’s a process, and I’m still at the beginning of that process.

I do have hope that as I develop new, healthier relationships with food and exercise, my body will respond accordingly. In the meantime, I’m working on my body image. I’m learning to let go of the idea that being thin will make me happier or my life better. I am accepting the fact that I will never be a size 4, and exploring the possibilities of being happy, fit, and confident with my body as it is.

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After a year of not dieting, I am confident that I’ve made the right choice. I feel healthier in body, mind, and spirit. I’m excited to discover where another year of not dieting will take me. And most of all, I’m grateful to finally be in touch with my body.

As it happens, my body is exhausted and telling me to just post this already and go to sleep. And I’m going to listen to it.

*** Edit ***
I made these. Enjoy.

Weight Watchers 1

Weight Watchers 2

Your fat is not your fault

Your fat is not your fault.

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You are not lacking willpower.

You are not lacking willpower because you can’t stick to your diet. You are fine; it’s dieting that doesn’t work. No really. Diet and exercise DO NOT CURE BEING FAT. They may help you lose weight for a few months to a year to six years… but, according to a massive analysis of every long-term weight loss study, no one — statistically speaking NOT A ONE PERSON — has kept off a significant amount of weight (i.e. more than 15-20 lbs) permanently. There is a lot of emerging evidence that when a person goes on a diet, their chemistry changes so that they’re bodies will continue to fight against weight loss long after the dieting has stopped. As David Wong from Cracked put it, “It’s like being an addict where the withdrawal symptoms last for decades.”

You are not lazy.

You are not lazy because you choose to focus your time and energy on things other than losing weight. To quote David Wong again, “The people who successfully [lose weight and keep it off] are the ones who become psychologically obsessive about it, like that weird guy who built an Eiffel Tower out of toothpicks.” So congratulations, you aren’t spending every waking moment of your life focusing on your waistline. You are doing amazing things, whatever they are. Seriously! Whatever you are doing with your precious time and brainspace (reading, writing, working, creating, studying, caretaking, being nice–contributing to society in any small way) is worthwhile and meaningful and more important than spending it obsessing about your weight.

If you want to be more active, then cool. Go for it. Hopefully you’ll find some activities that will bring you pleasure and joy. But don’t think that being more active is going to make you lose weight. It’s not. (See above). So don’t force yourself into a lifestyle that doesn’t work for you–you’ll only end up making you feel worse.

tumblr_mab2gzHeHb1qm339ko1_500You are not unhealthy.

You are not unhealthy just because you happen to be fat, I mean. Isn’t that great? Your weight and your health are two different things. You can be healthy at any size.  Health is determined by your behaviors, luck, and genetics (more luck). Your behaviors are up to you. And they are NO ONE’S BUSINESS but yours. For whatever reason, being “healthy” has been equated to being moral or being “good” in our society. Let me blow your mind for just a second by throwing this nugget out there: You have a right to be unhealthy. For any reason. It’s YOUR body and you can treat it however you wish. But if you choose to be healthy, eat nutritious food and try to sleep for 8-10 hours a night. Find some active things to do that you enjoy and quit smoking. But don’t conflate your health with your weight. Losing weight probably wont improve your health, and improving your health often times doesn’t result in weight loss. This is okay.

You are not stupid.

You are not stupid for trying that juice cleanse or hoping that trying Weight Watchers or eating paleo or forcing yourself to go to the gym every day would “fix” your fat. Our society believes that diet and exercise cures fat. This is what our doctors tell us. This is what the medical and public health arms of our government advise. They are wrong. They have failed us.

Instead of focusing on fixing the real, structural, environmental problems that cause people to become overweight, like poverty or food deserts or lack of sleep or being overworked/overstressed, food advertising, agricultural subsidies, high fructose corn syrup and processed flour…. public health officials have spent millions of dollars and time and energy telling you to diet and exercise. Why? Because it’s easier. It’s much, much easier (politically) to tell individuals to diet and exercise than it would be to fight the lobbyists or make any real headway in regulating the food industry or addressing poverty or our tradition of overwork in America. As Gary Taubes wrote in The Daily Beast, “…the reason the anti-obesity efforts championed by the IOM, the CDC, and the NIH haven’t worked and won’t work is not because we’re not listening, and not because we just can’t say no, but because these efforts are not addressing the fundamental cause of the problem. Like trying to prevent lung cancer by getting smokers to eat less and run more, it won’t work because the intervention is wrong.”

You are not weak.

You are not weak. In fact, your strength is incredible. You are living in a world that does not make it easy for you. You are living in a world that tells you you have to look a certain way in order to be loved, and at the same tells us food is love. You are told to resist eating foods that are scientifically engineered to be literally irresistible — as in, they trick our senses in order to make us physically unable to resist eating them. You have struggled with stigma and shame and guilt and survived. You are alive and you are living.

So let me say this one more time: Your fat is not your fault.

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Give yourself permission to forgive yourself.

Go out and live your amazing life.