I’ve been a competitive athlete since I won my first race at the age of five. Athletic activities always came naturally to me, and, from a young age, I found pride in that. I pushed myself, trained hard, aimed high, and was rewarded with results. Pushing through the pain and my limits gave me a feeling of empowerment. It made me feel invincible.
When I developed an eating disorder, I changed the way I approached exercise. From that point on, it was a means to reach a direct, measurable goal. I continued with my normal team trainings and fitness classes while adding in excessive repetitions on my own time. Exercise became an obsession that drove me past exhaustion. This was no longer about achieving healthy goals; instead, I was destroying my body.
For the past decade, my goal has been to relearn how to exercise. I’ve struggled to maintain my identity as an accomplished athlete while nurturing my body and prioritizing my health. First, I needed to identify the unhealthy part of my exercise. I knew I was searching for control, escape, and a way to punish myself through my workouts. Through counseling, I have been able to reconfigure how I view my quest for control.
I am also learning how to feel. I’m learning that it can be safe to experience emotions. Running away – literally and figuratively – only temporarily removed me from the pain I was feeling. In order to exercise in a healthy way, I had to learn how to feel without searching for a way to self-destruct. It’s been a massive struggle to learn to accept myself. I’ve had to work to believe that I am OK exactly the way that I am, that nothing needs to be “beaten” out of me.
I monitor my workouts now, checking in with my counselor and myself regularly. I am on guard for obsessive feelings that lead me to unhealthy patterns. I set limits for my workouts. I’ve learned to stop when I have had enough and to not push myself to extremes. I listen to my body and respond appropriately to pain, using it as my body’s signal that it needs rest. On days when I am exhausted, I modify my workout instead of forcing myself to finish.
It is a continuous process to find the zone where I am nurturing my health and not breaking it down. I reflect post-workout. I struggle to ignore nutrition labels and remind myself that my diet doesn’t have to be perfect. I focus on listening to the hunger cues naturally provided by my body and using those to gauge my intake.
The biggest challenge, though, has been mental rather than physical. Since I started on this path, I’ve had to modify the thoughts in my mind surrounding my health and workouts. While I use to think repetitive, degrading thoughts to push myself on harder and faster, I now let myself enjoy the work I’m doing. I take pride in the strength of my muscles, the increase in my times, and the capacity of my lungs. I smile as I run because I am so proud to be running the right way.
I’ve learned that I can still use my workouts to manage my stress and frustrations. It’s healthy to do a challenging CrossFit workout and push myself to the max, as long as I have listened to my body along the way. I can turn my music up and take out as much aggression as I can against a punching bag, and that is a safe outlet for me. I walk away from my most aggressive workouts feeling physically drained but mentally alert and energetic.
I enjoy taking pride in my health now because I know I am feeding my body and listening to the status reports it naturally provides me. I’ve learned there is more power in treating myself well than the power I was searching for with my compulsive behaviors. My self-confidence has increased exponentially since I started this journey of relearning how to exercise. I can now allow life to happen and busyness to intervene and respond with flexibility rather than rigidity. A missed workout doesn’t define me as a person anymore.
Through CrossFit, I’ve also found that I am always able to push further than I thought I could. So many times, mid-workout, I am sure I just can’t go on; I can’t move through one more rep. And then I do. And I continue, and I push as hard as I can and then even harder. And every time I make it to the end, amazed at what I have just accomplished. I’ve started seeing my workouts as a parallel to life’s continuous challenges. Even when I am sure I can’t hold on any longer, I always do. And I always will.