The Complicated Nature of Exercising

This piece was originally posted on Butter + The Body and was reposted here by permission of the author, Soraya Lea Ferdman. You can view the original post, here. 

It was some time in the spring of eighth grade when I picked up running. After almost two years battling with my weight, I had relied mostly on school sports and jump rope as exercise. At the time, I had convinced myself the latter was the most convenient form of cardio, for I hated gyms, the equipment needed was light and inexpensive and apart from looking ridiculous, I could even do it indoors. I realize now that telling anyone I exercised by jump roping 2000 times in 200-jump reps sounds almost like a joke, but that was what I did.  It worked for a while. Kids in my grade hadn’t yet become fitness obsessed, and so in comparison, I seemed like a real fanatic. But with my weight not dropping and the routine proving extremely boring, I started to consider running. 
          Thing was, I was not a runner. We had running tests every year and I was consistently one of the first to pass out. I considered myself athletic, but even in basketball and soccer, I tended to play positions that required less running. I remember trying to finish the 1.3-mile loop around my neighborhood once and stopping midway through. As someone who is really hard on herself, I was scared of running because I feared the aftermath of failure: that moment when you get to the point in a run where it hurts enough that you give up, thereby giving free reign to your inner-critic. Luckily, juxtaposing that fearful side of me, is a voice of optimism and determination. And the more I was scared of running, the more exciting the prospect became of being a runner. Being athletic, being arunner became the embodiment of self-worth because with every extra minute I ran, every mile farther, I was proving my inner-critic wrong. This back and forth between two very different parts of me built in layers of anxiety until one morning I just did it. 
       Once around, I pushed myself up the asphalt hills of my neighborhood, walking here and there as I tried to regulate my heavy breathing. Once I finished the loop, I plopped onto my driveway like I had finished a marathon. I smiled so wide it hurt. That morning, I met a very huge goal. I had accomplished something I had thought for so long was impossible and the very next morning I did it again. 
        But these bursts of accomplishment, especially coupled with noticeable weight-loss, only made me more obsessed with control. I was determined to never go back to my old-self, to fulfill the new runner-identity I had crafted in my head. This identity consumed fitness-tumblrs and Women’s Health Magazine articles faster than the ½ of granola I was allowed to eat. It demanded toned calves, a lean upper body, smaller-breasts. It thought all of this was the key to happiness, to loving my body. And so after every run I expected more of myself, rather than feeling satisfied I'd tell myself to run faster, more miles, more incline. And even though there were definitely moments of triumph, the bar for satisfaction kept raising until I was only satisfied when I surpassed an expectation. And while I'd rejoice every time I met a new goal,  those moments were countered by the extreme guilt and unhappiness I faced whenever I didn’t meet those expectations. 
      Still, after struggling so long with my weight and appearance, running felt like a gift. I strutted around school, happy with my new body (sometimes) and proudly told people of my habits. I tried convincing my friends to go running with me and talked persistently about working out and eating healthy. I spoke on the subject like it had saved my life, like it was more important that my grades, than the books I was reading, than anything really. Much like the embodiment of a before-and-after image, I advertised my weight-loss superficially; “It’s easy! Work hard to get the body you want and you’ll be happier and energetic because of it.” 
       In the summer of tenth grade, my weight melted down to 115 pounds. My period had become irregular, I only ate carbs in the morning, and I became so dependent on running that if I couldn’t exercise, I would only allow myself protein bars for meals. In order to adhere to this regime, I often skipped sleepovers (needed to run in the morning) and avoided eating out (no healthy options!). Things changed when I got to camp. With plenty of junk food and junk food eaters around me, it became harder to eternally avoid temptation. My self-control took on a binge-like quality, where anytime I overate I used exercise and starvation to balance my calorie intake. I may not have gained weight, but my relationship to my body and my desperate need for control became more pronounced. 
       Back at home and my parents started to better address my disorder. My mom and I had a lot of discussions about it:  I remember her once pleading with me, “Do you really want to go down this path? If continue, it'll get harder and more serious to address. And what, all for being thin?" Something  clicked and I agreed to  attend  therapy. There, I started thinking about the negative affects of my appetite for control. I became conscious  that I became very depressed whenever I couldn’t run, and instead of thinking of that as natural, I asked myself, why? Why, after a couple days, even a week of not exercising did I think I gained tons of weight?  How often did I use the healthy title of exercise to excuse my unhealthy behaviors? 
        That  year began my up and downhill battle of recovery, where I was forced to confront many habits I thought were healthy but weren’t. One of them was running, and I remember forcing myself to not run for a week just to test the way it affected me psychologically. To this day, when I don’t exercise for more than a few days (unless I severely restrict my calorie intake), I am more likely to become anxious, depressed, and have a deeply negative view of my body. Even when I do run, I often subconsciously expect weight loss as a measurement of my progress, even when I am at a healthy weight.  
         Five years later from that first run, and exercise and I have at the very least a complicated history. I’ve found that my fitness routine has become inconsistent and moves in cycles. Sometimes I’ll workout everyday for a week, and then, the following week, I’ll maybe go once or twice. In my attempt to better understand the nature of eating anxiety and body-dysmorphia I think exercise deserves an equally critical eye. Because, much like dieting, I believe exercising too can take on an obsessive and unhealthy quality and that media and language have a role in enforcing unhealthy behaviors. After my story, I've done a little research and have come  to a few conclusions: 

          A) The first is that the language around gyms and fitness is more likely to encourage what I call, yo-yo exercising, rather than consistent and realistic habits of exercise. 
                 B) The second is that much like dieting, what is actually healthy is secondary to what makes you look “good.”
                 C) The last one is my own plan to follow a consistent form of exercise. 

A) Yo-yo Exercising : A Breakdown
            Yo-yo exercising comes from the more well-known term yo-yo dieting (also known as weight cycling) whichKelly D. BrownellDean of theSanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, coined in reference to the cyclical loss and gain of weight. The reasons for yo-yo dieting are varied but often include embarking upon a hypocaloric diet that is initially too extreme. At first the dieter may experience elation at the thought of weight loss and pride in their rejection of food. Over time, however, the limits imposed by such extreme diets cause effects such as depression or fatigue that make the diet impossible to sustain. Ultimately, the dieter reverts to their old eating habits,now with the added emotional effects of failing to lose weight by restrictive diet. Such an emotional state leads many people to eating more than they would have before dieting, causing them to rapidly regain weight.
         Yo-yo exercising is the similar habit of embarking on unrealistic or extreme exercise routines, experiencing similar rapid body changes, but over time finding the schedule too hard to maintain. Much like the previous dieter, a person may feel ashamed or guilty for not meeting their once high standards and refuse to work out at all. TheJournal of Applied Psychology recently published a study on the effects of yo-yo exercising and concluded that these cycles of high activity and inactivity make patients more likely to gain weight and increases their risk of future chronic disease.
            In a Ted Talk given at UCL, Alisa Anokhinaa doctoral researcher in clinical health psychology argued that our population would be a lot healthier if we stopped ifnoring the psychology of weight loss. Countering the claims a lot of diet and exercise programs make, Anokhina argues that “weight-loss is easy if we think of humans as lab rats, if we’re talking only from a physiological standpoint but,” she notes, “psychology tells us differently.” According to Anokhina, when we internalize the language of quick, dramatic weight-loss, we often find that reality does not match our expectations. We adhere to these crazy routines, expecting to loose weight by will power alone, and when we’re not very good at it, we assume its because we’re greedy and lazy. 
            Extreme workout plans follow the same logic, many of which use fat shaming as a source of motivation. The argument is that you can achieve your fittest self so as long as you want to, as long as you are motivated enough. In fact, many ads glorify extreme self-control and the pushing of limits no matter the consequences. Again, pointing the laziness and lack of self-discipline if you fail to meet the high expectations.  Most of us are not athletes. We have other priorities, other focuses, and to actually maintain a balanced life, adhering to such extreme routines is just not plausible. That’s not the kind of message we’re taught, instead we’re left thinking we failed to push ourselves hard enough; that we are lazy. 
             Anokhina believes this line of thinking is the source of harm, “people have a limited amount of self-control and much like a muscle, when you over-use it, it becomes exhausted.” In phycology, the exhaustion of self-control is called ego-depletion and in humans it leaves us more likely to become completely inactive and binge eat. People are more likely to loose weight and keep it off if they meet small goals and experiment with exercise they actually like. 

B) The Appearance Link: Fitness Levels come in many sizes
            What these hypocaloric (extreme low calorie) diets and extreme workout routines largely have in common is their promise to “change your body.” Both advertise before and after images, underlining their dramatic results and how much more attractive they are after purchasing the product. And while both balanced eating and exercise are important for health, the message appears to be less about that and more about how you look. And because of the short time-line, progress means less about building small, consistent habits, and more about pushing your body to whatever limit in the name of loosing weight and looking good.
            And while there is no inherent problem in feeling proud of your results, I believe appearance centered thinking makes people more likely to seek quick changes rather than long-lasting habits. It also discourages people who are improving gradually but don’t fit the expected gym body type: I know I’ve skipped the gym multiple times because I felt anxious about my appearance and thought others would judge me for not looking “fit-enough” to be at the gym.
 If fitness is really the focus, then we need to put away the mirror and concentrate strictly on progress in terms of strength, endurance, and agility. We need to teach people that fitness is an individual path and your goal should not be to look like your trainer (who, let’s be real, works-out professionally). 

C) My Current Fitness Mantra: 
-       Just be active! For you, you know that means more than walking. Run a few times a week, but also add in strengthening exercises (for those arms that can’t seem to finish a push-up) and alternative forms of cardio. 
-       Make sure you’re having fun, don’t worry too much about the calories your burning. That’s not why you’re there. 
-       Working out is not a punishment, its not about hurting a weak body. The voice that motivates you should come from a place of self-worth and self-love. It should be saying, I believe you can run farther, faster, stronger. 
-       Take breaks and don’t be guilty about them.
-       Listen to your body and exercise a variety of muscles. It’s about feeling strong, not about becoming thin. 
-       The gym is not a place to feel pretty, don’t focus on anyone else but you. 
-       You have a great butt, squats or no squats.