Ever since I was a teenager I enjoyed consciously moving my body, whether dancing, or following a workout video (yes, on VHS), or running outside, or making up my own workouts. I thought it was fun. After high school, I continued playing volleyball in various intramural groups. I couldn’t wait to get to my next game or practice and could spend hours on the court. I didn’t ever think of it as exercise or trying to achieve a certain fitness level; I just had fun playing.
Sometime after college, I lost touch with my volleyball group and started working full time. It must’ve been around then that I started resenting having to “go work out.” I really just wanted to hang out with my colleagues after work and have a cocktail and some fried food. I was leaving behind my sporty college habits and diving into being a working adult. Unfortunately, that included separating myself from my natural inclination towards pursuing fitness.
What I gained from ditching a regular work-out routine was a lot of negative body image. I guess I didn’t realize that all that movement from playing sports and taking physical education classes was doing me a lot of good, mentally and physically. It kept me in tune with my body. I respected my body for being able to do things like swim, hike, walk, run, and jump. Now, I was just frustrated that my body was changing shape and I felt out of control. Not recognizing that the solution was to return to a healthier lifestyle, I instead turned towards more destructive behaviors like eating nutrition-deficient food, consuming too much alcohol, working more and getting less sleep.
Then, a few years ago, I went full force into a fitness routine. I became committed in a way that I’d never committed before. I had a goal to compete in a fitness show and I was, honestly, unstoppable. I achieved a level of physical leanness and muscularity I had always wanted with the help of a trainer and a strict diet. However, I made a lot of sacrifices to get there. I isolated myself from social events, ate many meals alone in my car, spent hours a day in the gym and pushed people away who I didn’t feel supported my goals. It was the best of times and the worst of times. I was winning my competitions so that seemed to approve my lifestyle. I had this amazing physique and yet, I was sad, unfulfilled, and confused. Getting the “perfect body” didn’t fix me, heal me, or solve all my problems after all.
On one hand, I had newfound respect for this previously undiscovered level of drive I had within me. On the other hand, I had developed some damaging habits around food and body image that bordered on disordered. I was starting to get concerned. Was this all there was to a physically fit lifestyle: five specific foods I could consume, eating every two hours from a tupperware container, agonizing over one or two pounds of water weight, and shunning social interaction? To be fit, did I have to abandon my body intuition from this point on and live according to calorie counts?
After spending buckets of time, money and effort on pursuing that specific path to physical fitness, I had ended up back where I started. The lifestyle was rigid and unsustainable, and it didn’t feel authentic to me. Instead of bringing us closer together, it was always a source of tension for my husband and I (supportive as he was). You see, I kept looking at my level of fitness as a destination. When competing, I was working toward a specific goal, a specific date that I had to be looking like “X” no matter what it took. After that event, I would completely rebound into bad habits. When I finally divorced myself from the need to compete in shows, I had to relearn ways of eating and exercising that were fun, supportive and sustainable for me.
By the way, exploring food and fitness can and should be fun! When it is, it’s something we look forward to doing every day. We should reframe our idea of “working out” to make it “play” and not “work.” It should remind us that we’re alive, and that we operate these incredible vehicles called the human body, capable of so much more than we give it credit for, so much more that even we can imagine. Always explore new ways of being active that you enjoy. Just because your friends and family love kickboxing, doesn’t mean you have to! Maybe dancing is more your speed, or yoga, or swimming. At any rate, you are unique and should find what works for you.
Fitness isn’t a destination; just like life, it’s an ongoing journey. The journey starts with one step. A baby doesn’t walk the day it’s born. There’s a learning and building process that needs to happen. If you’ve been waiting to start a new fitness routine, maybe today you walk around the block. Tomorrow, you walk around two blocks, and then you walk a mile at the high school track. One day, you decide to half-jog, half-walk one of those laps. The next thing you know, you’re running four laps – one mile! We learn by building on each level. We learn about ourselves through the process, about our weaknesses and how to push though them. Remember, though, this is a journey, so if you have to take two steps back after making some progress, don’t stress! Your highest level yet is closer than you think.
If there’s one thing I can take away from my experience of fitness competition, it’s that even when I think I can’t push harder, I CAN. My mind and body are stronger than I ever knew. More importantly, my willpower and spirit will get me through the hardest of times. I rely on that experience and knowledge as I set out on my new fitness journey today. Knowing just how hard I can go, how far I can push, and how satisfying the results are, those are the lessons I want to remember and apply. This time, I want to leave room for imperfection and kindness towards myself, time for rest when needed, to nourish my body with a variety of healthful foods, and to be sure that I’m honoring all aspects of my life, not sacrificing it for a tunnel-vision goal of physical fitness.