For Halloween my senior year of college, I decided to be Cat Woman circa Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises. I read about how Hathaway lost weight and toned up for the role, and I wanted to do the same. My plan consisted of two-a-days at the gym and obsessively tracking my calories/macros.
This is a scenario that played out time and time again in my life ever since middle school. Whether inspired by magazine stories, celebrities I admired, or social media, I put myself on diets or exercise regimens with the hopes of controlling my body and gaining attention and acceptance.
People always praised my dedication to working out. Little did they know how unhealthy my relationship to exercise was. I was insecure about my body, exhausted from not resting enough, and anxious on days I couldn’t exercise. I did not value my body for its functionality; I valued my body for how it looked.
While my relationship to exercise gradually improved since college, I noticed the biggest difference last year when my routine was forced to change. I moved from the suburbs into the city. Gym memberships in the city were double the price (or more) than my gym membership in suburbia. I didn’t want to pay that much, so for the first time since middle school, I didn’t have a gym membership.
Instead of hitting the gym every day, I either went to a yoga class, jogged around the city, or did an exercise video in my apartment. I was used to a minimum of 60 minutes of intense cardio on a gym machine seven days a week. Now, I was doing 30-40 minutes of exercise four or five days a week. I was sure my body would change in a way I didn’t like.
Funny enough, I started to enjoy exercise. I didn’t realize how much I previously dreaded going to the gym. Slaving away on the elliptical, stationary bike, or step machine for a solid hour became a boring chore. It wasn’t stress-relieving or fun, and my body didn’t feel energized or stronger afterward.
Without a gym membership, exercise became an outlet and stress-reliever. The exercise videos reminded me of learning dance routines, which is something I’ve been missing from my days of participating in competitive dance. My exercise sessions were shorter, and I allowed myself rest days, which previously was forbidden in my mind. This freed up time to do other things like exploring hobbies and socializing.
Going to yoga helped me to relax and connect with how my body felt. I realized where my muscles were tight, how my balance was, and how strong I was when holding different poses. The meditation aspect allowed me to relax and realign with myself.
Going for jogs and walks around the city became fun and relaxing. I took it as an opportunity to relish in the scents, sounds, and sights of the city. I joined a running club and made new friends. I ran because I enjoyed how it felt, liked exploring the city, and was excited to see my friends — not because I felt obligated out of fear for my body changing.
Much to my surprise, my body image and self-care habits improved. Not because I liked how my body looked, but because I valued what my body could do.
I think this is how exercise should be. I am not a professional athlete. I am not a model. I am not Anne Hathaway gearing up to play Cat Woman. I do not need to have six-pack abs or a thigh gap or toned arms to living a fulfilling life. I do not need to work out for hours every day until I reach my “calories burned” quota in order to be fulfilled, loved, accepted, and successful.
I have a job, hobbies, and relationships. I have a body that needs eight hours of sleep a night. I have an immune system that deserves a break. Exercise is still a priority for me because it makes me feel good, but working out for hours every day no longer makes sense to me.
Now, I like exercising because it is a way to boost my mood and energy and make friends. It is not my whole life, my purpose, or the answer to my problems. Exercise could not change how I felt about my body, make me less obsessed about how many calories I was consuming, or dissolve my stress and anxiety; going to therapy did. Exercise did not give me fulfillment; building meaningful relationships did.
In the wellness-obsessed, weight-centric culture that we live in, I think it’s important to evaluate peoples’ motivations for exercise. Is it really to promote your health or improve your body’s function, or are you doing it for aesthetic reasons or to reach a specific number on the scale? Is it negatively impacting your mental health?
Exercise plays an important role in health promotion, but it becomes dangerous depending on the motivation behind it. It’s easy for people to exercise obsessively and hide behind a facade of wellness. Exercising for longer than an hour, more than once a day, or even seven days a week is unsustainable and dare I say damaging (mentally and physically) for the majority of people.
Amid the social distancing precautions, I’m reminiscing on running with my friends, going to yoga class, and checking out new exercise classes; I’m not having an anxiety attack or steeping in guilt over missing a workout. Had this pandemic happened a few years ago, I would have — for the lack of a better term — lost my shit. I relied on my exercise routine as a way to feel safe and in control and didn’t realize how much my life revolved around the gym until I completely changed my routine.
If you value exercise for whatever reason and you’re feeling anxious/frustrated/afraid/etc. because your exercise routine has been turned upside down in our current world of social distancing, I feel you. This change in your routine may be a time to reflect on your relationship to exercise. In fact, you may discover new forms of exercise that you really love or realize you can exercise less and still be okay.
Most importantly, don’t let anyone make you feel guilty, anxious, or fearful for taking a break from exercise. Exercise should not be prioritized before things like relationships, hobbies, mental health, and rest — especially in this time when those things may need more attention than ever.