On Tuesday morning, I decided to get in an early trip to the gym. I had slept through spin class the previous day, and because exercise helps with my digestion, sleep, and mood, I decided to brave the rain and drag myself out of bed at 6:30, get on the bus, and spend 45 minutes spinning before 8:30.
In fact, it was quite nice. It was a refreshing way to start the morning, which gave me a productive start to my day. My body was able to relax and focus instead of being squirmy and anxious sitting through my classes.
The only inconvenient thing was that I was a bottomless pit metabolism-wise the whole rest of the day; although I ate a substantial snack almost as soon as I got to my office, I was hungry for lunch at 10:30 (I held out until about 11:15). Later, I bought myself a big sandwich before my 4:00pm class, and ended up eating another meal of oatmeal with cocoa, bananas, and almond butter when I got home at 7:30. Plus I made Arman’s cereal bars with crisp rice, almond butter, and cane syrup as dessert and, of course, sampled one of those. Try them–they’re like fudge, but crunchier! Okay, in retrospect that’s actually not much more than I eat on a normal day at all…but it felt like a lot at the time.
My point is, I now feel that I have a positive relationship with exercise. I exercise because it makes me feel good while I’m at it: the music is energizing and I enjoy pushing my body to feel fitter and stronger. I feel good afterward: better sleep and more productive, hm, trips to the lady’s room. And I know intellectually that it’s good for my long-term health.
I try my darndest not to exercise with the goal of burning calories, or to justify, compensate, or punish myself for foods that I’ve eaten. Sometimes I fail at that goal, but I try my darndest, and more often than not, I’m successful.
I try because I know that exercising to burn calories or justify food is miserable. I know from experience.
This is part 2 of a story I’m telling slowly, one step at a time, about my journey through anorexia. To get an orientation, you may want to refer back to “Going Hungry Episode 1: Changes,” in which I talked about the weight loss that accompanied my transition to college and how that initially unintentional weight loss triggered my first disordered thoughts.When I left off, I was a freshman in college who had gradually grown more athletic over time. I was the second-slowest kid in my elementary school gym class, and the slowest in junior high. In high school, I had decided that I hated gym but remembered that I had been okay-ish with weight lifting. So I gave that a try.
I was the only girl in a 7:00am high school class of almost exclusively football players and wrestlers. Side note: Once, when we went to weigh ourselves, they all stripped down to nothing but their athletic supporters. What amazes me is that the teacher didn’t say, “Hey. Maybe the one girl in the room feels uncomfortable surrounded by almost-nude adolescent males.” Nope. Kept checking everybody’s body weight like everything was normal.
Anyway, as much as I thought I hated that weights class at the time, I did get stronger (like you do when you lift weights five days a week.) I started to feel more confident in my body, and when a special came up at my mom’s women’s gym allowing teenage daughters of members to join at a good price, I decided to give it a try.
For the first couple of years, I mostly did yoga, specifically, the Les Mills BodyFlow class our gym offered. And discovered–“Hey! I’m not terrible at this. I can tell that I’m getting stronger, and it makes me feel good.”When I was a freshman in college, then, I decided to try the BodyStep, or Les Mills step aerobics class.
Have you ever tried BodyStep? Girl. It is so. hard. but so. fun. The music is fabulous, the moves are insane, and the women I did it with would hoot and holler like college freshmen at the back of a party bus. At the end, you can’t even believe that your body is still moving, it’s so tired, but it is, and you feel so proud and badass.
Afterwards, your muscles sing. It’s a feeling I like to call exhaustion euphoria: sort of a combo package of “Hell yeah, I did that thing,” plus “My body feels so alive and strong right now!” plus “My endorphins are going bananas!”
I also started trying BodyPump and cycling. What’s more fun than a good, long bike ride in lovely weather?I’m telling about all the things I loved about exercise, all the reasons exercise was a healthy and productive change in my life, to emphasize that some elements of an eating disorder are not so black and white. It’s not a simple matter of exercising for the right reasons or the wrong. A lot of times I did both at the same time.
How do I know, then, that I had an unhealthy relationship with exercise? Here’s how.
1. It became about appearance.
You know how exercise studios often great big mirrors? They’re great in some ways. They’re good to help you see your own form in order to maximize effectiveness and avoid injury. They’re also great if you’re trying to learn dancing technique.
But they’re also dangerous.
One of the things I remember distinctly about exercising as an undergraduate was the feeling that I was performing, the feeling that I was showing off, flaunting a body I had worked so hard to “earn.” I loved to watch myself in that mirror and gloat about how good I thought I looked, or, depending on my outfit and mood, curse myself for how fat I thought I looked. I hated the look of my tummy in the mirror; if I wore a top that even remotely showed a bit of tummy poking out, I made myself miserable scolding myself for that tummy fat.
I don’t like to admit to having such appearance-focused thoughts, but they are the unfortunate reality of eating disorder.
2. It became about calories.
I knew the calorie counts for many foods, I could approximate the calories I was burning in exercise, and I came to see the two as some kind of high-stakes competition. For instance, if I ate a larger supper in the evening after I got back from the gym, I didn’t see it as good that I had gotten extra fuel to help me recover. I didn’t even consider the extra calories “justified” by the extra exercise. I considered the extra eating a “waste” of all the hard work I had put into exercise.
As a consequence, I ate less and less before workouts and less and less after, not acknowledging that my body actually needed additional fuel because I was working so hard.
3. I became addicted to exercise euphoria and hunger high.
I not only loved how exhausted I felt after a good workout and wanted to feel that way as often as possible, I also liked to feel both really exhausted and really hungry, together. Exercising hungry, to me, was some kind of proof of my character. Hunger and exhaustion equalled strength, a full tummy and rest, weakness.
I honestly thought that feeling intensely hungry was normal and if you don’t feel that way most days, you’re eating too much.
4. I came to fear what would happen when I took a break.
For example, when I went on vacation and didn’t have access to the gym for a while, I would become very anxious about weight gain. Any amount of time away from the gym was scary to me.
It took me a long time through the recovery process to get back to where I could enjoy exercise without thinking about calories, weight, or punishing myself if I don’t get to the gym. Now, I love to spin, hike, bike, and swing dance when I can find time, but often, I only get in significant exercise two or three times a week. Does that scare me? Sometimes it does. Sometimes it sounds very tempting to try to go every day, to try to get a little skinnier, feel that exhaustion euphoria more often…but then I have to ground myself and remind myself how much more I enjoy staying active the way I do it now.
How do you like to stay active?
Do you ever notice unhealthy thoughts and motivations while you’re exercising?