Exercising Demons

Flipping back through my Facebook timeline (you know, because it’s not like I have anything better to do, like, say the 8-page paper on King Lear that’s due this week…), I came across a status I posted about a month ago, on one of those rare warm March days that get everybody in the northern Midwest unseasonably excited.

“Every year for about five months, I think I hate running. Then a beautiful sunny day like this comes along, and I remember I love running. I hate being cold. Not the same thing.”

In hindsight, both yes and no. Yes, in that there are some days where a good run on a sunny day feels wonderful, and in that I really do hate being cold. No, in that I don’t think I can say I love running. At least not without some parentheses.

If I see this coming at me, then I'll run, no questions asked.

If I see this coming at me, then I’ll run, no questions asked.

I have, like many people in various stages of recovery from anorexia, a complicated relationship with exercise. I wasn’t overly extreme in my habits, because there’s a lot of truth in Newton’s Third Law of Motion: objects at rest tend to stay at rest, and I am a very restful object. The very best days of summer for me are the ones I spend in a lawn chair with a giant book and a bottle of Diet Coke. I reason it this way in conversation: maybe it was important for our Cro Magnon ancestors to be able to outrun a saber tooth tiger, but I have a bus pass.

On the other hand, I was on my high-school varsity cross-country team for two years, and we had practice every day of the school week and meets on weekends. I have terrible hand-eye coordination, but running didn’t require any of that, just a pair of shoes, a willingness to endure, and some determination. And, as I would display over the years with undesirable results, I had all three of those things in spades.

And then the team was gone, and I began college. The myth of the “Freshman Fifteen” (and it is a myth, by the way) looming in the background and a free gym membership coming part and parcel with my student ID, I began my constant battle of fear of weight gain verses exercise aversion. Sure, I walked to class every day, and this year I live on the fourth floor of a dorm from the late 20th century that still doesn’t have elevators. So it’s not like I don’t do anything.

But in my mind, this is simply not enough.

Exercise and dietary strictness have such moral connotations in my head that I’m not entirely sure how to disentangle them. Working out became a regimen, something that I had to do a certain number of days a week, or…

Well, there really wasn’t an or.

I would go to the gym that number of days a week because that was just what had to be done. Any less and I would gain weight in a terrifying spiral out of control, and any more was just not going to happen, considering how much I hated going this often as it was. It was the maximum reasonable possibility for someone who has never been dripping sweat and thought, “Oh, I’m so glad I’m sweating! I feel so good now!”

My favorite things: yoga and cats.

My favorite things: yoga and cats.

When I decided that it was time to commit to recovery (or, really, my parents and doctors decided for me, and I was kind of taken along for the ride), exercise was one of the first things pulled out of the equation. For about six months, I was not to go running anymore. I was not to go to the gym. Yoga was fine, and more than fine, really; it was something I really enjoyed. I might not have gone about it the right way at first, signing up for the most vigorous of classes and considering in the back of my mind how many calories my sun salutations were burning. Buddha would have been rolling in his grave. (Or his reincarnation. Or whatever.) But I learned, and now a minute spent in downward dog is sometimes enough to clear my head. I’m not alone in using yoga as a recovery tool for eating disorders: you can read another testimony of its usefulness here.

But then my weight passed the point that my doctor considered the minimum threshold for exercise, and here I am again, five years-ish after the onset of my eating disorder, lying on my bed wondering if I need to go for a run right now.

The question is not “do I want to go for a run right now.” The answer to that is a wild, resounding no. I have other things to be doing: writing that paper on King Lear, for instance, or watching another episode of Firefly from the DVDs I borrowed from a friend, or doing the laundry I’ve been putting off doing for two weeks (I really do need to do that).

No, the question is “do I need to.”

If I don’t, how much weight am I going to gain by tomorrow morning?

If I don’t, how much worse will my pants fit, considering they already aren’t going on as well as they did a month ago?

If I don’t, when will I make time to go later in the week, because I need to get my allotted days in or… or… because I need to.

If I don’t, how much faster will I be gaining weight, because it’s already coming on at a pace beyond anything I feel comfortable with, and that’s with this exercise routine in place?

Does it even matter if I do, because I’m just going to gain weight anyway because I’ve lost all control of my body?

I’ll be the first one to admit, I’m not the best at dealing with these thoughts when they come up. Eating habits, I’ve more or less got those urges down. I eat regular meals at regular times (there’s a rigidity to this that I wish I didn’t have, but if it makes me feel more safe to eat similar things at the same time each day, as long as they’re balanced, healthy meals there’s not much cause for complaint). If I’m not hungry, well, it doesn’t matter. It’s six-fifteen, so I need to go get dinner. End of story.

Image credit: hittheroadjane.com

Image credit: hittheroadjane.com

Exercise urges, on the other hand, I haven’t figured out a good way to deal with. I’m notorious for caving in, because I know it’s the only surefire effective way to get rid of the urge. If I don’t, I’ll keep nagging myself throughout the rest of the day, no matter what else I’m supposed to be doing, You should be working out right now. You should be working out. You should have worked out when you had the time. I’ll be nervous and anxious and that won’t help me eat anything healthier. I’ll be miserable for longer. Better suck it up and do it.

I might not know how to deal with this self-imposed pressure, but I do know that it is not true.

Exercise should be an opportunity to celebrate one’s body. If I’m going to move my body, it should be to make it feel strong, healthy, happy, loved, worthwhile. I should do it because I want to, and because I enjoy it. Exercise should not be a punishment, a miserable endeavor done mostly to avoid sitting paralyzed on the couch with one running shoe in hand.

There is nothing moral about exercise. People who work out regularly are not any better people than those who prefer leisurely walks to class and a few flights of stairs to their dorm rooms at the end of the day. The only reason I need to be in tip-top fighting shape is if I need to wrestle a saber tooth tiger on a regular basis, and I’m not planning on it. Fitness is great if it’s done for health and enjoyment, but when you think about it objectively as the lovely folks at Libero Network did, is fitness really that big of a deal?

If anyone out there has tips for overcoming exercise guilt and compulsion, I’d love to hear your strategies. For now, I’m learning to sit with the feeling that I’m not currently running a marathon, that there are some squishy bits to me that weren’t there a few months ago, that there will always be girls on this campus who are thinner than me and who run faster and farther and longer than me, and that this is okay.

Because if I’m not going to accept my life choices and my body, who the hell else is?



  1. You pinned down the when and why and how nag.
    Thanks for the question.
    Nope don’t have an answer.
    But now, thanks, I have the question!
    A question wroth it’s weight in perspective.

  2. I can SO relate to this post! I’m a mom and don’t consider carrying my 3-year-old up and down stairs and then running back down and up to grab everything I forgot for our bedtime routine as exercise.

    I had to give up running when I was diagnosed with arthritis. I felt like my world was collapsing around me. Running as my escape. I could run anytime anywhere – just needed sneakers, shorts/pants, t-shirt, and my MP3 player. And that escape route was gone. Gone! Gone forever!
    That was almost 2 years ago and I’m still adjusting.
    How do I handle it? Not real well. But a lot of self talk and reaching out to friends and my husband for reminders helps.
    I try to ask myself “would this walk/swim/whatever be taking care of myself – physically and mentally?”

  3. I can’t stress enough how much I love your blog and I am completely happy that I found it. I know there are probably better things that you should be doing rather than reading my comment like your king lear essay, but I am so glad that you are (if you are). I lovee your honesty it is so motivational and mind blowing but what is even more mind blowing is that I could enjoy your post and not worry about how long it is because frankly it is so good I lose track.The most fantastic thing is that I am not even forced to do it, it is just amazing. I am glad that you can be so honest, it shows us teenagers that maybe not being okay is okay. I hope that one day you have time to go to my blog and tell me what you think, that would mean the world to me, but until then I will be reading your blogs. Hopefully in a non creepy non stockerish way. Thank you again so much for just being you.

    1. Thank you so, so, so much for your wonderful comments! I’m glowing on the inside right now.
      “Maybe not being okay is okay.” –> yes yes yes yes YES. The only way to be okay is to decide that no matter how you feel or how you think others view you, you are you and there’s nothing wrong with that. I will definitely check out your blog in the next couple of days, but in the meantime thanks for reading! *Internet hi-five*

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