The Evolution of my Relationship with Exercise
Growing up, I never thought twice about working out. That’s not because I wasn’t doing it (hell, I was exercising basically every day), but because I was constantly playing sports and getting in some form of “work out” on the field. Playing soccer and lacrosse my entire childhood, my nights after school and weekends were filled with about as many practices and games as a schedule could possibly permit. Fast forward to college, where I went to play Division 1 lacrosse: one of the best decisions I’ve ever made and something that has shaped my character today, but a signed contract to exert some type of physical activity just about every day for the next four years. Again, “working out” was never something I thought about. We had practice almost every day, games twice a week (while in season), and lifts and conditioning sessions on top of all of that. Was I consistently working out? Duh. I was in the best physical shape of my life. However, these practices and games provided me with something that I never realized until after graduation: there was no contemplation about what I should do for exercise, I just had to show up. I thoroughly enjoyed the sports I played, and therefore it never felt laborious or as if I was doing it to stay in shape.
After playing sports for 90% of my then 21-year-old life, it all came to an end after that last lacrosse game senior year. That’s when the wheels came flying off. This transition period, one I will definitely get into in a further post, is something we don’t discuss enough. For most, it happens right after graduation when the reality of working for the rest of your life smacks you in the face on that first day in the office. But, for me (and I’d beg to argue majority of other college athletes), the realization hits you the hardest after your last game. What you’ve known your entire life is now a part of your past. Majority of us, unless you are going on to be a professional athlete, will never have that type of structure, camaraderie, team oriented, dedicated, and competitive physical activity again. Sure, there are fun intramural leagues in most cities, but let’s be real, nothing compares. Alas, I found myself on a bus ride back from to college trying to wrap my head around the fact that my athletic career was over and that I had exactly one month, to the day, before graduation.
Instead of being the thought out, let’s take a deeper look at my emotions and why I’m feeling them, person I am today, I went head first into the thing I felt lacrosse had somewhat held me back from enjoying as often my non-athlete friends: partying. For that month, with the exception of one night (before the sole senior spring final I had), I went out every single night. I’m not talking a beer or two at a party or a few cocktails – what I would now consider in some realms “going out” – but I mean, out out. With that came the drunk eating, the hangovers, the hungover eating, and the absolute zero motivation to go to a gym. Hell, even if I had the energy, I wouldn’t have the foggiest idea what to do in a gym without my handy dandy workout pamphlet (that I, of course, no longer had). When graduation day came, I felt like a balloon that had been inflated by a pump. Not to mention I woke up pink eye that morning. Safe to say, it wasn’t a pretty site. Is this what most kids felt like throughout their four years of college!? Sure, I had fun and I don’t regret one bit of it. But damn, I felt like I was living in someone else's body.
Graduation came and went and within a month I had moved into New York City to begin my full time job in Sales & Trading. With this new life came client entertaining, work dinners, happy hours, plenty of nights out with friends, and many of days without physical activity. I was already waking up earlier than I ever had before in order to get to my desk by 6:30AM, and by the time I came home from work, if I didn’t have a social commitment, all I wanted to do was lay on my couch. Although I’m a proud “never-owned-a-scale” person, I knew my body was changing. My clothes weren’t fitting like they used to, I was constantly tired, and I, quite honestly, felt like shit. As someone who loves the act of getting her sweat on and feeling physically challenged, my body was craving a good workout. It had been way too long. Still having no clue how to structure a normal “workout routine” and wishing there was a turf for me to go run sprints on – a routine I felt comfortable doing but wasn’t going to find in Manhattan – I turned to the one thing I knew how to do: running. At the time, my schedule and wallet didn’t really permit the idea of boutique fitness classes, and I was quite honestly way too overwhelmed by the abundance of options.
After forcing myself to become a morning workout person, 4:45AM alarm clocks and all, I had finally built a new routine. Heading to the gym every morning before work to either clock in some miles on the treadmill / bike or complete a high intensity circuit in the empty classroom became my new normal. I was a cardio junkie. It went on like that for a few years, and with that came the obsession over the numbers. Shockingly enough, I’m not talking about a scale. Still, during this entire journey, I had no real idea of how much I weighed (other than my physical that gave me a rough idea for each year). The numbers I became obsessed with were in regards to running: the mileage, the time, and the pace. I would venture to say most people who know me would use the word “competitive” when asked to describe me, but there is no one I am more competitive with than myself.
What first began as a 1-2 miles on the treadmill turned into 4-5 and then, before I knew it, I was running 8 miles on a casual weekend and signing up for half marathons. I downloaded a running app to track my miles, constantly entering in how far I had run, what the overall time was, my splits, and the average pace. Each run I was focused on “beating” the one beforehand and I set personal goals of a total monthly mileage to reach. Sure, this may seem like typical goal-oriented behavior that is encouraged by many when trying to get in shape, but, for me, it was obsessive. It became something that solely brought negative connotations and thoughts into my mind. Never a “wow, way to go, you just ran 4 miles!” but more of a “last week you ran 5 miles and it was faster, that's not good enough.”
Running provided me so many things I felt I needed. It provided me an outlet from my stressful job, a time to escape and focus on just putting one foot in front of the other. It gave me structure; something I was consistently seeking during that time of my life. It allowed me to be outdoors, time I missed so sincerely and felt this city lacked so much. Most of all, it gave me what I thrived off the most: concrete evidence through numbers. I’m the kind of person who likes to know the facts and exact information. Numbers give me that. There was no curious voice inside my head wondering whether that was a “good” workout or not, because the numbers gave me the answer. It was either a fast 6 miles (success), or a slow 2 miles (a waste). There was no in-between. A sub-par workout that didn’t reach my standards made me angry and the idea of a rest day, or not having access to my running sneakers or a gym, caused a ton of anxiety.
We can’t overlook the fact that, of course, with this strenuous cardio focused workout routine came the body I felt I hadn’t seen since my college lacrosse days; the one I missed so much. Thinner thighs, tiny arms, and a flat stomach. Everything kept getting smaller and smaller and everyone around me was continuously complimenting how “in shape” I was. Ahhh the curse of positive reinforcement. Why would I ever stop? Focusing on these positives and that I was continuously improving – something I thrive on – caused me to ignore a lot of red flags. My boobs and butt were no longer existent, my digestive system was out of whack, I was constantly anxious, my stress was at an all-time high (hello massive amounts of cortisol), I was extremely self-critical, and, to be frank, I wasn’t happy. I was still eating my normal amount of food, so an eating disorder was never something I, or those around me, considered a part of my identity and even looking back, I still confidently know it was not. However, I had some of those similar obsessive tendencies. Instead of focused on food, they were focused on mileage.
The first turning point came in the winter of 2016. I was training for my second half-marathon with my cousin and raising money in honor of our late grandfather – our idol and the most incredible person who has ever walked this planet. Training too hard and therefore bringing on a nagging college IT band injury, I found myself incredibly focused on the things that didn’t matter. The competitive, number driven, and approval-seeking human in me couldn’t stop training through the injury in fear that I wouldn’t beat my time of my first half-marathon or that I wouldn’t do as well as people expected me to. News flash girlfriend: NO ONE cares about your half-marathon time. Seriously, I mean it, no one. You’re not Usain Bolt trying to beat a world record, you’re one of the millions of people who signed up for a race. Get over yourself! If only I could’ve told myself this then, but instead, I kept pushing. At the end of the race, when I finally crossed the finish line and felt like my knee was about to fall off my body, it hit me, “what the hell was all of this for?”. If I could confidently say it was to raise money for a charity in honor of my grandfather, or check off a bucket list item, or just have fun, that would’ve been an amazing thing. But I realized I was doing it to prove something – both to myself and others. Prove that I still had it, prove that I was still the competitor I always knew myself to be, and prove that through obsession and self-loathing and my critiques, I could achieve a goal. Well, ya know what? Screw that. Who sets out to do things for those purposes!? That was when I decided I had had enough.
I slowly began to introduce other workouts into my routine and really explore the world out there that I had so vehemently ignored: yoga, barre, walking, boxing, pilates, etc. You name it, I tried it. Although I was trying new classes and not doing nearly as much cardio as I used to, there was still a part of my brain that was nagging me to get back out there. I hadn’t found a routine that I loved yet and my body was changing in ways I couldn’t come to terms with. I missed the thrill, excitement, and obsession (as sad as it is) of running. I was constantly yo-yoing with the idea of whether running was for me or not; going months putting in hard core mileage and then months only focused on yoga. My body was downright confused and, since I was constantly changing up my mindset on what I liked and wanted to do, I wasn’t really noticing any benefits of anything. Instead, that crazy aunt in the attic voice was still being her critical self. Then, after almost exactly two years from that post half-marathon mini wake-up call, I got hit by a car. I know, I just dropped a bomb on ya. But, if you’re reading my piece, you probably know this by now (if not – read this to bring you up to speed). After my accident, I embarked on a much longer than expected road to recovery for my concussion; one of the hardest challenges I have ever faced.
Being someone who thrives on instant gratification, knowing what’s to come, and being given answers, having a diagnosis with no idea of a recovery timeline was torture. Not to mention, there was no physical activity for the first 5 weeks. This 2+ month recovery really shook me to my core. Being on disability from work and cooped up in my apartment led me to reflect on a lot things (which, I think is evident giving the whole career change / I’m chasing my dreams thing) and take into consideration what really mattered. Was running further today than I did yesterday one of them? Or having a thigh gap and a flat stomach? Hell. Fucking. No. Life is what matters. Waking up every morning and being able to breath. Feeling strong. Having limbs that get you from one place to another. Being confident and happy in your own skin. These are things that matter. The most eye-opening part of the whole thing was that, after about eight weeks without any working out, my body felt amazing. Of course, it helped that I was primarily eating meals I had made and was not drinking alcohol, but it put a whole new meaning to the “abs are made in the kitchen” saying. You can’t work your way out of a bad diet. I always knew and believed that, but had never taken enough time off of physical activity to really acknowledge and appreciate what a role the food I ate played in the whole matter versus what I was doing in the gym.
During that time period, because I missed so many things, I found a whole new level of appreciation for simple acts and abilities. What at first was viewed as a “day off” or a “stretching session” and second workout of a day, going to a yoga class gave me a sense of accomplishment. What would have been viewed as a total “waste”, my first run back was an incredibly slow one mile and was the proudest accomplishment I have felt in a long time. Over my healing period I promised myself a lot of things. I would never take my health for granted again. I would wake up appreciative of every day ahead of me. I would see the positive side of things. I would run when I felt like it and only for the act of getting out there and running; I wouldn’t track my pace or distance or compare it to any other run, I would just enjoy it. Most importantly, I would love myself. That meant saying goodbye to the voice in my head that was always telling me to get up at the ass crack of dawn to go for a run even when I didn’t want to. That meant truly listening to how I felt and taking days off. Mainly, that meant changing my workout routine and loving my body.
So, what have I been doing now? A lot of different things, but there is one main theme: I now workout for myself. I don’t work out to lose weight or fit into a smaller size or impress anyone, I do what I feel like doing, when I feel like doing it, and only for that reason. Some mornings, all I feel like doing is going for a walk, so that’s what I do. Every once and awhile, that craving is for a more freeing and quick paced movement, and that’s when I run. Recently, I felt like hitting things and bringing out my inner badass, and there came boxing. With my new schedule and desire to save money, at home workouts have also become a big part of my workout routine. Most mornings, though, my body needs some type of slow, small muscle focused, relaxing workout that aligns with my breath work; hence, my love for pilates.
As you can tell, I do not have a set “routine” any longer because I am done with forcing my body to do things it doesn’t want to do. When I used to map out my morning workouts it always felt like a chore – I dreaded the nights prior to a “long run” morning and felt anxiety over it. What if I didn’t feel my best in the morning? What if my stomach was hurting? What if I got out there and could barely run a mile? WHO CARES!? Evidently, I did, but never for the right reasons. It’s like I had convinced myself I was some professional athlete and my salary depended on this. Reality check: it doesn’t. Without a routine, it is hard to say for certain what my weekly workouts consist of, but that brings a whole other point to this piece: no two people are the same. Some people thrive off of running and don’t get obsessed with the numbers, while others can’t imagine running more than two blocks. Some bodies tone only by doing high intensity workouts, while others need slower and less impact. It’s something a lot of people don’t want to hear: you have to be your own guinea pig and figure it out yourself. There is no “one size fits all” in this world. Personally, I love where I am right now in my life when it comes to physical activity. I focus on my breath work both inside every workout class and outside in my normal life, I assess how my body truly feels, I am engaging muscles I didn’t know existed, and I’ve given up the concept that I have to be dripping in sweat to truly have gotten a workout. I’m done doing things for others. I’m feeling confident again in my own skin, I waved goodbye to a thigh gap and welcomed the return of my butt and boobs, and I love my body. Sure, there is zero chance I can squat probably half of the amount I used to in college or run as far as I was able to last year, but I feel stronger than I ever have before, and no number (mileage, scale, or barbell weight) can trump that.
Since I’ve spoken a lot about what I’m currently loving and I know I will get asked some follow up questions regarding specific workouts, here is what my ideal week would consist of (with some favorite studios included). This by no means is something I follow and achieve every week, but if I were to lay out a week of my favorite things and ideally feel great each morning, this is what I would probably be doing:
1 day of yoga (Laughing Lotus – there is no yoga class in this world that compares to Victor’s, Yoga Vida, Sky Ting, privates or SkyTing with Beth Cooke, or Merge NY – I haven’t been yet but the founder, Kajuan, is one of my favorite old YV instructors)
1 day of something to get my heart rate pumping if I’m in the mood for it (either running outdoors, a boxing class at Rumble or Gloveworx, The Class by TT – Sophie and Courtney are my faves, or a class at Switch)
As often as I can going for walks
By focusing on more low intensity workouts and pulling back on the cardio, I have noticed changes in my body I never could’ve expected. Obviously, I do not have the “thin distance runner’s build” (i.e. twig legs) anymore, but I feel stronger, less anxious, more awake and energized, and overall leaner. Without my daily distance run and large cortisol release, my stress levels have also noticed a massive change for the better. Am I telling everyone to give up cardio and start focusing on exercises like pilates, yoga, and barre? No. I am encouraging you all to find what works for you, find your balance, and get to a place where you are solely working out for yourself. Don’t aim to look like a model you follow on Instagram or to be “bikini bod ready” come summer, but to feel confident in your own skin, healthy, and proud of yourself.