OR, the way we demonstrate, perform, and discuss exercise. The hallmark of post-graduate life seems to be an investment in fitness: half marathons, marathons, boutique fitness classes, triathlons, and a bevvy of other social media brags about what our bodies can do now that we aren’t destitute and guzzling Natty Lite like water. I am one of these obnoxious people. Please feel free to drag me all the way to hell and back on this critique, as I also see the irony in being a woman with absolutely no chill who loves fitness.
I challenge the way we portray exercise– that it must be this all-consuming labor. Working out does not have to feel so much like efforting. Exercise is just movement. The fitness and wellness industries have pathologized something our bodies innately know how to do. Our bodies are the experts. Symptoms are the result of self-neglect. When we repeatedly overuse our bodies or exert it in ways that it does not want to go, it will create symptoms to alter our behavior. The danger in fitness extremism– in marketing exercise as this exclusive club– is that we stop listening to our bodies. We believe that our bodies are the problem so minor symptoms go ignored until they cannot be anymore.
Before you read any further, I should confess that I love working out. I always have. My parents ran races as their dates. My mom slayed a 10k through sandy hills while pregnant with me. My father was a football coach while I grew up and coaches cross country at a spry 64 years of age. I finished my first race at age three and began ballet that same year. My little brother coaches high school track. This anecdotal avalanche says that I have been moving my whole life. And, with that level of activity comes a list of injuries.
When I was injured, I became afraid of fitness, like it was an elite club and my membership was revoked. My undergraduate experience barely contained my 3-4 jobs, 11 activities, 2 majors, and multiple leadership roles. So, after my freshman year, I rarely exercised. I gained weight. I owned 1 pair of leggings that fit and I used Spanx to feel more comfortable in my jeans. April of 2016, eleven months after graduating, I began working out again. I began moving my body because I descended so far into crippling depression that I was just trying to get out. I recall being dissatisfied with my appearance, but I was so indifferent to myself and my life that caring about my body seemed useless. I want to tell you that it was hard to get back into the groove, but it wasn’t. My body is built to move, and yours is too. It just wants to do it on its own terms. I genuinely enjoy ass-kicking workouts. I thrive on the adrenaline extremism that looks appealing on an ad. But I don’t think that’s the only valid movement.
Your body is a good body. It’s good on the days when the only movement you participated in was breathing. It is good if all you have time for is the job where you stand on your feet. And if you HATE running, do not run. If yoga or walks or hiking is your jam, that is your body telling you that is its preferred mode of movement. And it is a glorious thing to try a new work out. Quit worrying about being “good” or comparing yourself to the person next to you or if you “belong there”. You belong in any and every room you enter. You don’t have to be good at the workout! There! You’re free! Focus on being present, not good. Don’t allow anyone to make you feel like exercise is a club you don’t belong to. That just means whatever facility you attended, that is not your place nor your people.
Speaking of facilities, do not allow the glossy online ads make you feel like you cannot afford exercise. While I love that I am in a place where I can afford a boutique fitness membership, those ads are commodifying something your body naturally does. YouTube offers a lot of great workouts and yoga practices and Pilates routines you can do at home. There are entire online libraries of workout tips and substitutes. Planet Fitness and a lot of fitness chains offer affordable memberships. You get out of a workout what you put into it. You can get a lot from home workouts. You don’t have to compulsively spend money to prove that you are fit or to belong to some fitness community.
We also need to talk about fatphobia in fitness marketing. It’s been my experience that I listen to my body less when intentionally trying to lose weight. All bodies are different. Metabolisms differ. Genetics differ. Exercise has a greater purpose than weight loss: endorphins, community, pride, self-care. None of these things hinge on there being less of you. Actually, only healthy bodies can hold onto weight. I once read an essay about a woman with cancer who was complimented for her weight loss. She was enraged. Here she was, dying, and people were asking her for diet tips. She ended up beating cancer and views her weight gain as a blessing and a symbol of her health’s return.
I am a chronic dieter (for control more than anything). For years, I subsisted on 1300 calories a day. Then, a mentor of mine looked at my tiny portions and said plainly, “you’re not built to be thin. focus on building muscle. that’s what you’re made for”. My mentor is raising two competitive athletes. It hadn’t occurred to me that there was an objective outside of weight loss for my body. In many ways, weight loss was an escape from living inside my body. I lived elsewhere– a place free of trauma and memories. I abandoned my body as much as the people who abused it had.
The body remains and remembers. It is the most tangible proof of unconditional love in this world. What else endures endlessly and asks for so little in return? What else grows and changes and heals? I returned to my body because we are all each other has. Because in the wake of a bulimic relapse and my life falling apart, I no longer had the energy to vie for weight loss incessantly. It was a lot to just eat, sleep, move. That took everything, and in that time, my body got a little soft but much stronger. A house that is lived in is typically sturdier.
I hope you post your fitness accomplishments. I hope you’re proud of your body because it is always something to be proud of. However, there is no moral aspect of fitness. You are not a worse person for taking a season (or a few years or a decade) of rest. You don’t need a reason to take a rest day. Wanting to rest is enough. Value-based language associated with food consumption (IE: “I’ve been so BAD today because I ate cake”) is just making life harder when it doesn’t need to be. Our bodies are made to move. They’re designed to take up space and make something out of this one life.
I still have days when I buy into this extremist, elitist fitness pathology. There are days my legs feel strapped to a hamster wheel and my brain is a calorie counter. I step away, close my eyes, trying to shake away all of the constructs and take myself back to a time when it was just my body and me. When I was small enough to fit in a laundry hamper but believed I was twenty feet tall– breathless and strawberry cheeked when I would sprint barefoot across streets and sidewalks until my soles were rubbed raw from gravel. My limbs jiggle at the memory of palpable physics– leaping on a trampoline or swinging on a swing. My feet never forgot the precision and discipline dance hammers into its pupils. My eyes open to an unshackled hamster wheel and a well-fueled body. Motion surges through my cells once more.