March 16, 2016

Exercise & Me

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Exercise was always the thing I did after a bad thing had happened. Fallen out with a friend? Gym. Anxious after failing an exam? Gym? Break-up? Gym. One time at University a guy I really liked (the sort of infatuation when your chest would feel incredibly tight every time you were with them), told me he just wanted to be friends then proceeded to tell me he’d had a girlfriend all along, after months of leading me on – and instead of crying, I nodded, walked home, put on my dusty running shoes, blared music through my ears and went running through Southampton Common until I couldn’t breathe. Any anxiety-ridden hangover, or “the fear” from the night before would also be erased by a morning run, the alcohol and anxiety seeping out through my pores, dissolving into the grass. I’d just lie there, looking up at the sky, lying down, on a brisk cold morning. Running was the answer – I could concentrate on the pain in my calf muscles to distract me from feeling much else. It saved me from life’s drama.

The gym was the place I’d go if I was feeling bad about my body. Not to empower, but to punish. I’d go to the gym for the sole purpose of losing weight, getting smaller, trying to shave bits off my silhouette so less of me existed. On a few too many occasions one of the gym staff would come over to me and say “hey – you ok? You’ve been on there for a while now” as my cross-trainer read 55 minutes. They knew I normally did ten at the most and would call it a day. It was out of character. The girl who didn’t even wear proper sports socks was going full pelt on all the machinery. Even they could tell when I’d suddenly become too aggressive in my movements. It was no longer about the joy of doing exercise; it was more about making myself suffer: “I’m fine, I’m just…I’m not done yet…it’s OK…Just a few more minutes.” I pant and shoo people away. Let me sweat away how much I hate myself, in private, please.

The danger was, (and could potentially still be for other girls out there), this direct embedded correlation between exercise and weight loss. Or “exercise and not good enough”, instead of “exercise and HEALTH”. It’s meant that for years down the line, I’ve been scared of the gym, because in the past, it was my unhappy place for so long. I forgot to associate the gym and my running shoes with the true purpose of exercise: to remain healthy. To get your blood pumping around your body. To allow you to run for the bus without running out of breath. To be sociable in group classes. To feel your legs standing strong and sturdy beneath you. To stop you from creaking as you bend down to pick something up. To make sure you don’t need massages all the time before “your body aches”. Your body doesn’t normally ache for no reason, it’s telling you: hey, I need to move a bit more.

The gym was a place that for so long I associated with self-hatred and punishment and overcoming personal tragedies that it took me so long to start going there again. Cut to the present day and my attitude towards my body couldn’t better. I like my body, I like it’s shape, it’s flaws. It’s loved. I’m loved. It’s me, and it’s not going to change much. It WORKS. And because I was happy and didn’t necessarily care about losing weight, perhaps this meant exercise didn’t matter, because HELLO, I don’t need to slave away burning calories, because I’m finally happy with myself.

But this is the fundamental issue with my old teenage way of thinking, because: my body still needs me. The association between weight loss and exercise needs to stop getting into the heads of teenage girls. It needs to be clearer that exercise reaps so many more rewards. It can improve mental heath, energy levels, immune system (etc! etc!)

I need exercise. Not to necessarily push myself to the limit and sign up for marathons, but to make sure my body is getting all that it needs, and yes, that means going to the gym. Going because it improves my mind, makes me better at writing, makes me more energetic in the mornings, kills the afternoon slump, breaks up my day and puts a little bit more pink back into my cheeks.

It’s funny how long our teenage dramas haunt us. The gym used to be such a sad place for me, but it’s time I disassociated old painful memories and do whatever it takes to take care of myself.

  • Love this post! For me the biggest reason I go to the gym/do regular exercise and like to eat well is that I feel that it directly correlates to my overall mood. Whenever I go to the gym regularly and eat good, healthy and nutritious meals, I have so much more energy, I feel happier, I feel less stressed and it’s a massive confidence boost! It’s a bonus that I can tone up and get stronger in the process. I actually love the feeling of seeing myself getting stronger too and suddenly realising I can now do 10 push ups before dieing rather than 5. I think it is so important to make sure young girls understand that the gym or exercise is so much more than just being skinny and should never be a punishment but more like something you enjoy and that brings you happiness.

  • Sarah Letke

    Love this! Still working on the routine of regular exercise myself, but trying really hard to be clear with my girls that I eat well and try to move my body because I want to be healthy and alive for decades to come, not because I want to be thinner or lose the belly fat. They get bombarded by images of thinner and thinner women and it makes me sad that they may some day equate dress size with happiness and self worth. Thank you for positive words!

  • Another really great post. I hope you start going back to the gym regularly. I’ve heard that if you do something routinely for 3 weeks it becomes a habit – and the gym will have a new association for you. It sounds as if you found joy and relief in exercising, despite the negative associations it currently has for you. I’m betting you will again, and so much more.

  • This is a great post and I agree with so many points here. Teenage opinions and drama’s linger for far longer than you really realise, even if you have moved on from those thoughts. I know that exercise is more than just losing weight, I understand why it’s necessary and all it’s benefits. I feel better afterwards and most of the time it’s becuase I know it’s what my body and mind needs to stay healthy. And yet still sometimes I leave wondering how many calories I’ve burned and whether I should bother weighing myself this week. It’s an on-going thing but eventually my emotions will catch up with my mind and move on!

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