Making Exercise About Me
Welcome back guest writer Nat, bringing us a fabulous piece on the personal aspects of fitness for Fitness Week.
One of the most painful things I’ve dealt with all my life is the notion impressed upon me by society that physically fit is the way to be. Not just “be healthy, take care of yourself” fitness. One has to look a certain way, work out a certain kind of way, feel a certain way about exercise or they are doing it wrong! If you don’t love sweating your ass off for an hour while gasping for breath? WRONG! Which–really? That’s excessive. There are people who love super intense workouts, and you know what? That’s awesome. Good for them. However, it’s not a choice for all of us and I wish we, as a society, could understand that.
Since I was a kid my parents encouraged my participation in sports. I played soccer—which I sucked at—and softball, which I was good at. By the time I went to college I had earned a first degree black belt in Tae-Kwon-Do. My parents insisted I be active, and while I found some pleasure in these activities, there was always the lingering thought that I was doing this for someone else. Like joining the band and playing trombone in high school, at the end of the day sports were what my parents wanted me to do, not what I wanted.
Once in college I joined the karate club and started playing rugby. Karate fell by the wayside as my body took a beating during rugby practice and games; there are only so many contact sports one can handle at a time. But, these were my choices, I felt good about them and I had fun doing these activities. Hell, I made lifelong friends. It was much easier to be active under these circumstances.
After my years of schooling were done, I got a job. Instead of having all the time in the world between classes to work out, suddenly my free time became constricted to a few hours in the evening and maybe a little time in the morning, depending on how early I wanted to get up. Did I want to take an hour at the gym after work when I could be home unwinding? Or writing? Or playing video games? Those were things which were important to me too, after all.
I played on the work softball team, and I eventually trained for a 5k, which meant a lot of running and walking. I was pretty content for the most part, I got a little bit of social time, little bit of me time, had some fun, and satisfied the oppressive societal exercise obligation I felt. However, after a weeklong hospitalization due to an unforeseen illness in 2009, I fell off the exercise wagon. My body had betrayed me. I felt guilty and awful, even though what had happened was no one’s fault, just a fluke. I could hear my parents’ voices in my head, echoing society: I knew what I *should* be doing, but I couldn’t motivate myself to do it.
When I moved California five years ago, I figured fresh start, fresh exercise regime. I started walking/running again, I even took up Crossfit, which I hated initially and then ended up sticking with for over two years. I was pretty proud of myself. However, I’m not as young as I used to be and old rugby injuries—notably a long irritated knee from an ACL repair—eventually sidelined me. It’s one thing to be a bit sore from a workout, but this was another pain entirely– a warning pain, the “you need to stop doing X now,” pain. Even a visit to the physical therapist didn’t help. The exercises I was given worked, but only to a point. To continue to improve in Crossfit, I needed to go beyond that point. Again, I fell off the wagon. My parents’ disappointment, and society’s judging, were not only internalized, but externalized on a trip home. You’d think at thirty-something, my parents opinions would not matter. Spoiler: they still can sting. Guilt over feeling like a physical failure in terms of what my body could handle, on top work stress, left me mentally sidelined at the cost of my physical health.
Ironically enough, it was talking to my doctor which helped pull me out of my exercise funk. Given my history of being irritated with people telling me what to do with my body, you’d think it would be the opposite. However, I’m very lucky to have a supportive primary care physician. She didn’t say, “Go take a spin class, go lose X pounds, go do this” she just said, about getting back on the exercise wagon, “start small, make a small sustainable change, go from there.” I consider myself a fairly smart person, the doctor was just stating the obvious facts I have seen and heard all my life, but it resonated. Maybe because instead of the “exercise or else” mentality of society—and subsequently my parents—she was pretty good at selling it as, “exercise for you, this will help you in more ways than one, there’s no right or wrong here.” And you know what? Sometimes that’s nice to hear. Sometimes it’s what we need to hear.
So, I’m walking again, 30 minutes or so at lunch while I’m at work, usually taking longer walks on the weekends. I find I can multi-task while walking, like thinking up ideas for my next short story or what to do next in my novel. I’m debating weightlifting again, just because I enjoyed it, but we’ll see. I try not to let others I see on my walks distract me, the bikers, the runners, they’re doing their thing, I’m doing mine. And it’s all good, whatever anyone else may say. I do what works for me because I’m the only one who knows what I need and how to best get there.