I had a conversation last night with a friend that got me thinking a lot about my transformation when it comes to numbers and exercise. He was describing a new gym that him and his wife enjoy and my immediate reaction was in no way would that gym be a healthy place for me. Your numbers like calories, mets, and heart rate are all on a screen for everyone to see and it is easy to see how destructive it could be to someone struggling with a disorder that holds numbers is such high esteem. I used to hate running and treadmills and any kind of machine that told you all of this information because I would spend hours trying to hit a certain mileage in a certain time or burn x amount of calories in a given workout. I forced myself to work out excessively to hush that voice in the back of my head telling me I needed to reach a certain number. I hated every minute of it and just even talking about a gym like that made my hair stand on end.
This physical reaction to the conversation made me proud to see how far I have actually come in this area. I hold nothing against people who choose to workout this way because I could see to someone with out obsessive tendencies that it could be a wonderful environment to foster some healthy competition and motivation. I just know it is not for me. After a major back surgery and a relapse into old behaviors I returned to treatment. This time around I was forced to not exercise because I physically couldn’t due to pain and recovering from the fusion. This was the perfect time to confront these issues and I was literally forced to sit with myself for over six months. I knew that when I was able to exercise again I wanted to have a much healthier relationship with it. I have competed and trained hard since I was 10 years old, and I was very burnt out and something had to change. In a way my back surgery was a blessing because it forced me to completely stop and confront that one issue in recovery that I just kept ignoring.
I spent all of those six months analyzing the reasons why I exercised, why I trained, why I loved it, how the eating disorder had taken my joy out of it, etc etc. This injury also forced me to accept that your body is something to nourish and cherish and never take for granted the abilities that it allows you to do. I went in to treatment again hating my body, hating exercise, and in general hating most aspects of my life. Fast forward to today, a year and a half later and my relationship with exercise is the best it has ever been. I didn’t realize how hard I have actually worked to get to this point. I have a very healthy relationship with numbers and know my boundaries. I have even enjoyed running again because I have no desire to burn a certain caloric amount or run x amount of miles in x amount of time. If I feel like running, I put in my music and I run. I don’t pay attention to distance while running because I am focused on me. How does my body feel when I run? Am I tired today or do I feel strong? My focus has completely changed and I embrace mindfulness within exercise. I had to cut out all exercise and all numbers to rediscover my passion for physical activity and I am not sure that would have happened if I wasn’t forced to. That is why I do agree people in recovery that struggle around this area do need to quit exercise for a period of time so that they can transform their relationship with exercise into something healthy and beneficial. Some days I take unscheduled rest days because I realize I am going to the gym for the wrong reasons.
I am still an athlete and numbers are still a focus and will be throughout training, but because I took time out to focus on my needs I feel more more prepared to deal with this type of pressure. I know I will probably post around this topic a lot because it is still a work in progress for me and I want to be able to share things that have helped me along the way. It was just very nice having a moment of realization that yes I am in a far better place today than I was a couple years ago and I am proud of all that hard work. I know one thing that benefited me more than anything was a nonjudgmental environment to explore myself and explore new activities. For me that has been in the gym with my team and in the same gym exploring cross fit for cross training. I have enjoyed exploring different forms of exercise and have a good idea about what things work best for me and what I enjoy. I love that I am able to work out because I want to and because it excites me, not because I have to or feel inadequate if I don’t. I feel very blessed I have been able to fully recover from my surgery because I had several doctors tell me they weren’t sure what I would be able to do afterwards, especially in regards to jump rope. I am still highly competitive and have a great desire to win, but I am able to listen to my body and know my limits. I will never again jeopardize my health for a medal. If that means I am done competing, so be it. I hope I can continue to find balance and enjoy my relationship with training, but I now put myself and my health first.
Stop for a moment and consider your own relationship with exercise. Are you doing it because you love it or because you think you have to? What would it look like to try a different form of exercise? Are you addicted to those running aps that track every detail of a workout? Do you ever actually take time and think about how your body is feeling during a workout? Besides maybe afterwards or in the middle of a tough workout when your body is shouting that is is exhausted, do you really pay attention? These are just some things to consider especially if you are finding workouts more of a habit and not as enjoyable anymore.
Just because you may feel stuck in a cycle now where exercise could never be joyful, I assure you that with some time and effort you can completely change that relationship. Trust me, as a future exercise physiologist, numbers aren’t evil or a bad thing depending on the population. In fact, they are necessary! But- I want people to dig beyond the numbers and goals and really get in touch with the body and soul and the values that motivate exercise for them.