A year ago I shared this post on the blog about what happened when I stopped working out for a month.
I alluded to it in the post, but chose not to get into too much detail about my history with overexercising and how deep my disordered thought patterns had gone. I think it all still felt a little too fresh and real and per usual, I needed some extra time to process everything before I could share my experiences.
I finally feel like I’m in a good place with my body. A really good place. This doesn’t mean I’m immune to insecurities or feeling like my jeans fit a little too tight some days, but I no longer let that dictate my life. I think how you react to these thoughts, that are normal and human, is truly what’s indicative of recovery.
Because for many years of my life I let these thoughts and subsequent actions dictate my entire life.
But let’s rewind.
I’m 23 and staring at myself in the mirror in a tight-fighting dress and I begin to cry. I told C I wasn’t going out that night because I was “too fat”. I was 114 lbs and at the smallest I had ever been. I had a flat tummy, lean legs and what many girls would have defined as “fit”. I, however, could not see any of this. What I saw in the mirror was someone completely different. I saw someone who was inadequate. Who lacked willpower. Who everyone would be staring at for not have worked out that day.
Yes, I know this sounds crazy. But all I could see in the mirror was the girl who skipped her workout that day because well, life happened. I couldn’t get to the gym and therefore could not wear the tight-fitting dress and subsequently would never be able to attend the party that night. This was how messed up my thought-patterns were. And we haven’t even tackled the headspace of not being able to drink because I hadn’t worked out…
Clearly, I was in a pretty bad place.
But of course, I was the only one who couldn’t see it. No matter what people said to me or probing questions that were thrown my way, I did not see anything wrong with my behavior. I mean I worked out (albeit A LOT), I ate healthy and it maybe isn’t the worst thing in the world that I didn’t want to drink or party.
On the conventional health scale, I was off-the-charts. On the mental health scale, I was a whopping zero.
At that point in my life, there was nothing that anyone could say to me that would make me realize how bad things had gotten. I needed to learn that lesson for myself.
That lesson came a few months later when I did some major damage to my knee while running on a treadmill. I was in denial for a while. The pain was excruciating, but I ignored it. If I couldn’t run, I would jump. If I couldn’t jump, I would lift. I did whatever I could tolerate until a physiotherapist finally told me that if I ever wanted to live pain-free again, I would have to take a break. A long break.
What I see now that I couldn’t then was that she saw me struggling. She saw the issue as far deeper than knee pain. She saw the girl who cried into the mirror and whose life revolved around exercise. Perhaps she had been one of those girls. Perhaps you are one of those girls. If so, I hope this post speaks to you.
Life is not about what is on your workout plan for that day. It’s not BBG or TIU or how many miles you ran. You are not defined by your ability to push your body to its limits. Your strength is not measured in curls or deadlifts. And you are not defined by your body.
It’s easy for me to say this now after 5 years recovering both physically and eventually, mentally from the awful place I was in. If you are in it now, I see you. I feel you. I was you. I know exactly how you are feeling and I know you fear what will happen when you let go of the reigns.
But those chains you grip are doing you more harm than good.
If your life revolves around exercise, I can assure you that other areas of your life will suffer. You will lose friendships, miss out on relationships, burn your adrenals and potentially have long-term health consequences that I’m only now just learning about.
What is challenging about being addicted to exercise is similar to the obstacles of having an eating disorder. It’s not as though you can go cold turkey on food or exercise and continue to live your life without them. It is a drug you will never quit, but instead have to learn to live with in a far more moderate and kinder fashion.
This is the hardest part of recovery. Redefining your limits. Learning what it means to listen to your body. Accepting that moving is simply enough and that some days even this isn’t possible.
So how did I get from the girl crying in front of the mirror to the girl writing to you now? Honestly, it took a lot of work. I shed a lot of tears and I learned to vocalize all of my fears.
First things first, I took a break. Actually, I took several breaks. For someone who is addicted to exercise, the thought of not working out is terrifying. To me “not working out” meant doing a power flow. It meant going on a light run. It did not mean rest. But rest is what you need. Whether you’re injured or are feeling the mental effects of burnout, my biggest piece of advice to you is to SLOOOOOOOW DOWN. Be kinder to yourself. Go on a walk, take a nap. Drink some tea. Find other things in your life that bring you joy and do those.
Secondly, talk about it. Maybe it’s with a friend or a therapist (I highly recommend you seek professional help btw) or maybe it’s with the entire internet. One of the most healing pieces of my journey, was you guys. Talking about life outside the gym, my changing body and discovering other areas of joy beyond the gym with you was a huge help in being where I am now. I’ve quoted my friend Natasha Adamo about this more times than I can count, but “you don’t need to be healed to help”. I’m still not fully healed, but helping any of you has helped to heal me.
Lastly, educate yourself on the long-term impacts of overexercise. Learn what adrenal fatigue means. Check to see if your hormones are out of whack and truly listen to the signs of your body. My knee pain, turned into leg pain and then turned into back pain. I ended up in the hospital after passing out several times from a combination of adrenal fatigue, b12 deficiency and severe pain. All induced by overexercise. What I would do to give back that flat tummy to avoid all of these experiences…
Eventually you will get to a place where you can move intuitively, but only once you learn that exercise must come from a place of love and not from a place of hate.
You will have to rediscover what feels good for your body and you will have to be humble in your pursuits. It’s not always about pushing yourself to extremes, but about listening closely to what your body needs. Oftentimes your strength is shown not in how much you work out, but when you choose not to.
This is where I’m at these days. I have seasons of my life when I workout more than others. I don’t follow a plan, but I listen instead to what my body needs. Most of the time it’s a walk. I walk a lot. It feels so so good and I’ve never come back after a walk feeling worse than when I left.
Sometimes I need to sweat it out. Sometimes I need some death trap pilates equipment that makes walking a real challenge for the next 3 days. And sometimes I want to spin my heart out at SoulCycle. But if life gets the best of me and I need to relax on the couch, instead of working out, that’s cool too.
I gave up a lot when I quit my obsessive exercise, but what I got in return is priceless. I had room for friendships, instead of long runs. I learned all about hormones (and subsequently what NOT to do), which also introduced me to the world of green beauty. I discovered what self-compassion meant instead of numbing my pain with anti-inflammatories. I had room in my head to think about things besides when my next workout would be, which meant I could finally start living my life instead of planning it.
When I look back on pictures of that girl, I don’t see someone who was fit. I see someone who was sad. Who lost her identity in her body instead of using it as a tool to create the life she wanted.
My story ends happily. But there are so many young women out there who are struggling. I hope I can speak to that girl staring back at you in the mirror. I hope she hears me when I say that you are NOT your body. That the gym will never give you the love you are seeking. That you have so much to offer the world so it’s time to start exploring what that means.
I also want her to know that it’s okay to take a break. And that eventually you will find a more moderate way to move your body. Movement that is rooted in compassion and not manipulation.
So if you’re that girl. I’m sending you the biggest hug. I know how you feel, but I also know that with a little patience and a lot of love, you will be okay. There is so much more to life than reps, weights and runs. I’m so excited for you to uncover what that means.
P.S. If you’re interested in learning more about my exercise philosophy and how I move my body, check out my latest YouTube video HERE.
*pictures courtesy of Bettina Bogar or me