The other day, I was biking with a friend of mine and we got to talking about how training time—biking, running, swimming (she’s a triathlete friend)—gives us a way to destress. When she said something about how exercise has always been her way of keeping herself sane, happy, and healthy, I couldn’t agree more. There’s something about heading out for a bike ride or a run and getting to be outside, without your cell phone attached to you, with some space from the rest of what’s going on in your life, that’s oh so freeing.
More generally, I think exercise is a great way to destress. Letting it all out in the weight room. Processing thoughts in the pool. Thinking things over on a hike. These are all ways that exercise can give us that much needed break and time to just be in our bodies.
However, for a while, exercise was a source of stress in my life.
First: Am I doing enough? I should do more. This was the name of the game when I was really struggling with my relationship with my body and experiencing my eating disorder.
Then: Am I doing the right kind? I should do it all. Even through recovery, I’ve found that it can be a difficult balance to master: exercise is a place where I can learn what my body is capable of and where I have the opportunity to just experience it for what it does, not just for how it looks, but it’s also a loaded area where there are so many messages about what we “should” be doing.
But I’ve learned along the way that when it comes to deciding whether or not something is good for us, things aren’t always black or white. Going on a long run for one person might be about getting out and experiencing their body. For another, it might be about burning off a binge. We celebrate people who are dedicated to their recreational pursuits and sometimes we can go too far—for the average person who trains for health or just recreation, training through an injury probably isn’t necessary and seems counterproductive. It can be a slippery slope if you’re struggling with why you exercise—the compulsion is hard enough to kick, but add in acknowledgement from the world around us when we do come across as “hardcore” and things get even tougher.
That being said, I think it’s important to talk about how exercise, even for people who have struggled with compulsivity in the past, can be a part of taking care of your body. Our bodies are meant to move so learning a relationship with our bodies that allows us to exercise in life-affirming, health-building ways is essential. With so many messages about exercise as a way to control weight, it can be hard to flip the switch: exercise isn’t punishment or just about changing the way your body looks. The number of articles I’ve seen about quitting running because it’s not going to make you skinny just reinforce the idea that exercise is only about weight—it’s not. Running has other benefits—the mental ones I talked about at the start of this post, the other physical aspects that have no reflection in our body composition.
Exercising, in my opinion, is about using our bodies and keeping them moving in ways that feel good and that are enjoyable. It need not be complicated or intense. It shouldn’t come loaded with feelings of guilt and compulsion. It’s simple: exercise should make your life better—your physical, mental, emotional, and maybe even spiritual health (if you’re into that).
If you’re a regular reader, maybe you’ve checked out my bucket list page. On it are some things that I’m making good on these days, namely biking across the continent. I didn’t really elaborate on my page, but ever since I wrote an article for Canadian Cycling Magazine in 2010 about a man who rode across the US and fundraised for brain and spinal cord regeneration research (he raised $26 052 to be exact), I’ve had biking across the continent in the name of eating disorders awareness on my long term to do list.
So, that’s why I’m uber excited to be planning this fundraising ride across the states. I’m sorting out the details now, with plans to donate the money that I raise to Hope’s Garden, the eating disorder resource centre in London that helped me so much. When I decided to ask for help with my eating disorder over five years ago, I used the Hope’s Garden website to find myself a therapist. I went to support groups throughout my recovery on campus and at Hope’s Garden itself. The Awareness breakfasts and special events that the centre offered kept me learning, committed, and passionate about my recovery. It seems only fitting that I do this in their name! My plan is America By Bike (the same company the man I interviewed used) and their “Fast America” tour in April of next year: 33 days, 3 457 miles, and a whole lot of awesome. I’ve been talking with Hope’s Garden (the woman in charge there makes me even more excited about all of this) about fundraising and setting up a donation page, looking for sponsors, and getting the word out about what I’m doing—and why I’m doing it.
If I hadn’t taken the time to think about what exercise means to me and to get my relationship sorted out with why I work out, I don’t know if biking for 33 days straight from one ocean to the other would be a healthy choice—my mindset of more is more is more in the past would certainly be raging. But I’ve earned back the right to bike my butt off by putting in the work and getting healthy. I had a good talk with my therapist (part of how I stay committed to myself and my health) about this. She (re)assured me that years ago, this wouldn’t have been a great idea. But given where I’m at now and what I know about exercise–I see it as a place to challenge our bodies and then to really appreciate just how much they’re really capable of–I know that this is one heck of an opportunity to focus on what my body’s capable of. It’s hard for me to think about how my thighs are looking in my biking clothes once I’m out the door and riding, and I trust more and more that the less I worry about how my body looks as a result of the exercise I do, the more I enjoy activity.
Like I said, I think it’s important to—and I’d like to serve as an example of someone who’s been able to—find a healthy relationship with working out that will keep us moving, happy, and healthy throughout our lives.
What kind of exercise helps you appreciate your body most?
What’s one item on your bucket list that you’re ready to make good on?