Exercise & Me
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.
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