The following experience is generously contributed to this blog by a mindfulness enthusiast who wishes to remain anonymous but hopes that sharing this story may inspire others to try something different in their lives.
These days, I can’t remember the last time I went to the gym. Even so, if I close my eyes, I can still recall the drumming of footsteps on the treadmill, the distinctive smell of sweat and disinfectant and coffee, and the damp strain of my perspiration-soaked teeshirt. Throughout the formative years of my life, exercise was a constant companion, so much so that when I could not exercise, I felt jittery, couldn’t sleep, wasn’t hungry. What many people call “discipline,” for me became “addiction.” It is with hindsight that I now recognize that my quest for fitness, and the time and mental energy involved in maintaining this elusive quality, was not healthy. In fact, it interfered with my functioning and the quality of my life.
In university, I often chose a workout over studying for exam. I meticulously planned my daily academic routine around a two-hour allotment of gym time. During a summer research tenure abroad, my first thought was “how do I find a gym?” Anxiety-driven runs punctuated even the seemingly all-encompassing early days with the man who became my husband. He regularly found amusement in my early morning treks through massive unplowed snowdrifts to the nearly empty gym.
My desperate quest was not about weight or appearance (for the most part), but about wanting to maintain evidence supporting my narrow view of what an athlete should do. Since discovering my penchant for long-distance running in middle school and the recognition my success in this area garnered, I became obsessed with maintaining work out regimens that I felt revealed my level of fitness. No matter that very often these regimens were actually sabotaged by the extreme dedication I showed in their pursuit: the six stress fractures in high school, the anemia that depleted my energy, the dehydration that resulted in a miles -long blackout running along a busy road, and the fatigue and depression from being trapped in an endless loop.
If I couldn’t run exactly 7.6 miles per hour for 45 minutes on a treadmill with a 1.5 percent incline that day, I was obviously just days away from muscle atrophy and loss of cardiovascular fitness and ultimately, losing my identity as an athlete. Vacations were plagued by anxiety and furtive runs were crammed in among planned pleasurable pursuits. My mood could swing from post-workout elation to an extreme irritability resulting from what felt like the worst cabin fever imaginable.
With the benefit of hindsight, I recognize that each workout was avoidance of what I feared most: being unfit and what that could mean. And if I weren’t fit, or an athlete, or dedicated to the pursuit of my physical maintenance, I did not know who I was. It took having a child and a move abroad to face this difficult reality but by the time I chose to steer my life in this direction, I was ready for change.
However, the real key to unlocking the cage of exercise addiction was the practice of mindfulness. At first I found the practice of sitting with myself, with no distraction, for minutes at a time, to be exceedingly uncomfortable. But, I made it my goal to confront my doubts about this motionless mental exercise and keep on practicing.
It was by establishing a regular mindfulness practice that I finally became more comfortable in my skin, doing whatever my body happened to be doing, feeling whatever happened to be present during that moment. When I could not exercise, I directed my attention to the movement in my body during routine activities like walking to the grocery store, doing the laundry or washing dishes. Additionally, I opened to the anxiety I felt, befriending it and getting to know its ebbs and flows. Rather than this increasing my anxiety, this approach helped me to manage it and continue to live the life I valued. By facing my fears, I gathered evidence that the worst would not happen- that I would still be a human being worthy of connection, value and belonging.
With time and mindfulness and doing things differently, I have slowly and steadily forged a different relationship with exercise. I recognize that it is not the exercise itself that caused the problem, but rather my relationship with it and its power to influence how I felt about myself. I am grateful that these days, I know I am a hard-working and healthy person who makes the time to invest in the things that I find important: friends, family, my work, and even, sport.
In high school and college, I was a competitive runner and triathlete. In high school, I placed in the top ten for my state’s cross country run. After repeated injuries, I started swimming and found triathlon to fit nicely to my interest in exercising as much as possible. A simple formula developed: a good race = pride and a feeling of accomplishment; a bad race = anxiety and self-punishment. After this frantic roller-coaster ride of a life, I decided to abandon competitive sport. For some time after college, I was so paralyzed by the threats posed to my self-image by athletic competition that I refrained from racing competitively at all. I preferred the quiet, easily controlled and anonymous comforts of the gym. I convinced myself that sport was overrated and that I simply enjoyed working out.
But I missed the community of sport, the joy of a big road race and the enthusiastic supporters clapping as the runners passed their front lawns. I missed the dialogue and the thrill of connection to the world of my sport. I now realize that this approach to managing my anxiety was not satisfying.
Now, I practice mindfulness during my run. I intentionally choose to run for the love of movement and from the moment I start to lace up my shoes, I am tuned in to my experience. During my runs, I experience a sense of freedom and the feeling that each step is a gift. I am grateful to be outside, to be moving, to be in my body and with my thoughts. When I am uncomfortable, I adjust my body to compensate. Rather than try and maintain some arbitrary metric that I can use to compare myself to during the next run, I open to the sensations in my body and decide how to respond to them. And I compete! I smile at the supporters and feel proud that I am engaging with the community around me. I open my eyes and look at the things I pass as I am running. I notice if my mind gets stuck on anxious thinking or comparing and bring the focus back to my breath or to the sound of my feet on the pavement.
It is thanks to both sport and mindfulness that my relationship with myself and with exercise is balanced and flexible. Most days, I am comfortable in my own skin and can respond with compassion to impulses that do not match my values. I am happy on the days that I can get in a run but am equally content when days pass and my main activity is building a Duplo tower with my son. I am grateful that even in the early stage of this new way of relating to exercise, I already feel stronger and more powerful than I did when I was more physically fit.
(Image courtesy of digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)