Where would the fitness industry be if it told women they were already worthy of wearing a bikini? (Hint: we all are.) Would everyone give a thumbs up and dive into a cheesecake? For years we’ve been educated on how to eat better and exercise more. We’ve heard the experts tell us what we’re supposed to want and how we need to get it. And yet those messages aren’t leading most of us toward healthier lifestyles. What if we changed what these conversations looked like?
I’m a researcher at heart. Even as a teenager, I read up on how to lose weight. Granted, those sources weren’t listed in PubMed. They were largely fitness magazines and talk shows. Still, I knew that I should exercise more and make healthier food choices to lose weight. And yet, I failed. I failed so hard and so many times they should make a fail meme for my weight loss efforts. And I know I’m not alone, so I’ll share my story.
In elementary school I joined the track team, which amounted to a volunteer commanding us to run laps around the school grounds for what felt like an eternity. My best friend loved to run, and so I warily joined. For that day at least. After a few laps I was completely over it and ran down the small hill to my home, vowing never to return. Running was bullshit.
I became a talented musician, and like most kids with perfectionistic tendencies, I clung to the things I was good at and avoided anything made me seem mediocre. Trying athletics was too risky; after all, my attempt at track hadn’t been wildly successful. My father told me I wasn’t athletic and I allowed that to become my identity. I was a musician, not one of those sporty people.
I wasn’t completely inactive after that, however. I got that message from the media. I should be thinner. To do that, I should exercise. It never occured to me to ask myself what I wanted or why. My attempts to be fit were sporadic and always tied specifically to weight loss, never to my health. I can recall doing Buns of Steel videos in my friend’s basement in high school. As a young mother, I schlepped my way to aerobics classes. Restrictive diets accompanied exercise all along the way. My focus was always on an ideal body. It was a collage cobbled together from fitness magazines, skinnier friends, television, and all the other influences around me that I internalized as being necessary for being attractive. My narrative was always that I was not enough, whether professionally or personally. My inability to sustain a healthy lifestyle just reflected those feelings.
A healthy approach to fitness also eluded me because depression and anxiety plagued me for years. I often used food and exercise to manage my emotions. I ate my feelings sometimes to feel comfort, and I restricted my food at other times to feel in control. It’s not surprising that I developed an eating disorder. I hated my body when it was fat, and I hated it when I was thin. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to look attractive, except when it comes from a place of needing the approval of others above all else.
It all came crashing down eventually. I starved myself all day and then when I finally caved and ate dinner I’d purge it all away. The feeling of being full had become unbearable to me. A trip to the grocery store became the end of an era. I remember staring up at the shelves full of food. I felt completely paralyzed. My heart raced. I left in tears, unable to buy a single thing. Something had to give.
I’m 40 now. Therapy, time, and mellowing with age transformed my view of myself and my relationship with my body. It took a few encounters to really change my perception of myself and my idea about what fitness can mean to me. I began to swim and run. I entered triathlons. I lifted weights. Somehow in all of those adventures, my view of fitness shifted from something I did to look better to something I did to feel better. I began to look forward to workouts to see if I could lift 5 more pounds than last week. Could I shave off time from my bike route? Very quietly I began to take pleasure in the process instead of the outcome. Finally, I began to appreciate who I was inside as well.
The more I focused on getting better at the tasks in the gym, the more I wanted to take care of my health. I ate foods to fuel my workouts. I began to allow myself to eat without feeling guilty about what the food was. Like Amber Rogers says, “eat the food.” If the food fit into my goals, I ate it more often. If it didn’t, I ate it less often. I stopped using dogmatic diets that demonized food groups. Food had less power this way; it wasn’t good or bad. It was just food that I chose depending on what I needed, and for the first time in my life I began to have the ability to build habits in my diet that were sustainable.
The road is even more important than the destination. I found what I wanted to do and why I wanted to do it instead of pursuing what I believed I SHOULD do. Weirdy enough, in pursuing the process, the outcome that I thought I’d wanted all along suddenly hit me in the face. Here I am, weighing about 75 pounds lighter than when I was at my highest weight, but somehow I don’t care all that much anymore about how much space I take up. My body can do cool shit. I feel good inside. I like my body most of the time.
That is my message. I want to walk up to my girlfriends who are berating themselves and simultaneously shake them and hug them . I want to tell them that they are beautiful just as they are. Self acceptance doesn’t mean that you don’t take care of your health. It isn’t wrong to want a lower body fat percentage or a perkier butt, but if it’s something that obsessively drives you, it’s likely that you will never be happy with your body, even when you get dat ass.
When your desire for health comes from wanting to care for yourself, the process is so much more positive, and so is the outcome: resilience, confidence, inner strength.
I knew that I had to help others find what it took me so long to realize in myself. Fitness can be an incredible tool for personal transformation as well as better overall health. After diving in to exercise science as well as behavioral theory, I began to coach others. I have helped people reach their goals of gaining strength, losing weight, improving their sports performance, and even walking up stairs without pain. In every single case, improving their fitness helped people feel better about themselves.
Every plan we make begins with a conversation, and clients and I work as partners. I always begin by asking rather than telling and I learn the most by listening. Together, we figure out why they feel stuck and how they might most effectively build habits and plans that move them forward toward their goals. We celebrate when they discover positive changes in their mental and physical health through fitness. It’s possible to develop and sustain habits that improve our well being without chasing an ideal that someone else threw at us.
That’s why I became a trainer and health coach: I want to help people find their own fit. Want to find your own? I can help!