The best New Year’s resolution I ever made was to exercise less
“I think you need to make a New Year’s resolution,” said my husband, James, a resident doctor. “I think you should only run four days a week. Only four training days a week.
“Are you just jealous that I can run more than you?” I replied with a wink.
James rolled his eyes. “No way am I jealous of you. You’re a prisoner. I like to run too, but I don’t want it to look like what you do.
I had struggled with eating disorders as a teenager, but worked to have a better relationship with food as an adult. I did this by developing a list of rules. I will not skip meals. I won’t count calories. I will not remove entire food groups. I made these rules without outside intervention. I haven’t been to therapy, I haven’t seen a doctor, and I haven’t seen a dietitian.
I had thought about asking for help, but I convinced myself that my problem was not a real problem. That my disordered eating was something best handled on my own. I was able to temporarily change my behaviors, but I hadn’t addressed the root of my problems.
Exercise, however, was one area of my life that I hadn’t worked to moderate. It was, after all, in very good health. How can something so good be bad?
For years, I found myself skipping social events to get more miles. In college, the only reason I skipped classes was to fit in extra workouts. Sometimes I’ve raced in thunderstorms or extreme temperatures where I’ve found myself worrying about lightning, heatstroke or frostbite, but not enough to skip my workout.
Since my husband had started his medical residency, I used my time in the evenings to run. He worked many hours as a doctor. Evenings were often lonely. The long training sessions gave me something to do. They have become a kind of companion. I was running 10, 15, sometimes 20 miles a day. I felt guilty for giving myself more than one day off a week.
I didn’t consider myself an athlete. I knew that running was my primary means of moderating intense anxiety about my body and my life. Intense exercise wasn’t just something I did. It was something that I had To do.
James took a folded piece of paper from a pocket in his blouse and handed it to me. “It shows the life expectancy of a runner,” he said. “I printed it at work. People who don’t run have a short life expectancy. Moderate runners are more likely to live longer, but look. He pointed to a steep fall. “People who run excessively die earlier than those who don’t run at all. I think you need to take more days off. It’s exhausting to live. »
“Aren’t you exhausted?”
“Try it. For a month. You can always go back if something bad happens.
I had no intention of trying it. Running, for me, was therapy. I couldn’t admit that I needed to go to therapy to run.
That evening, however, I happened to have a high fever. As I lay in bed sweating and shivering, my mind raced with my usual concerns: How will I integrate my training? Then suddenly I thought, Maybe this time I won’t.
So I took the resolution: four days a week. I only exercised four days a week. It was the best New Year’s resolution I’ve ever made. I was no longer treating chronic injuries, shin splints, weak hips and back pain. For the first time in my life, I felt physically strong.
I relied a lot on the ruler. I only exercised four days a week, but it was never less. Yet enjoying a social and professional life has become less of a headache. I was a better partner. It was easier to manage fevers and stomach viruses, long workdays and family emergencies. I was still in bondage – even though I had free time. Aren’t we all, after all, prisoners of our own bodies? I rationalized myself.
Years later, when I became a mom, I found myself reverting to disordered eating behaviors and exercising. This is how I faced the difficulties of parenthood. These behaviors allowed me to dissociate myself on difficult days. They also made it hard to be there on the good days too.
Disordered eating behaviors and exercise were not what I wanted to model for my children. They did not correspond to my values. So I decided to seek help from a therapist.
During a first session, she asked me questions about my behavior with food and movement.
“Well, for a while I had a rule of not exercising more than four days a week,” I replied. “And even though I’ve been doing more than that lately, I want to go back to that rule: only four days a week. It was really good for me.
“Have you ever been able to have no periods at all?” she replied after a moment.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Have you ever been able to do what you wanted to do? Move and eat intuitively. Have you ever been able to live without a set of rules? »
I started laughing at the absurdity of the thought. And then I started crying.
She and I talked about ways to decouple my identity from the numbers that distracted me, miles and minutes and pound sterling and calories. I realized that when I felt sad or lonely or overwhelmed, over-exercising was a way to punish me for having feelings. She helped me consider additional coping mechanisms. She encouraged me to come closer and open up to those I trusted, rather than running away and isolating myself.
When I left my therapist’s office, I drove to work. Then after work, I went home. It was time for my race. I put on leggings and a sports bra. As I turned towards the door, I noticed that my legs felt heavy and stiff, a familiar feeling, one I had long since learned to ignore. Is my body saying no? I asked myself. Or is it just what it feels like to be healthy?
I had been on a fixed diet for so long that if my body was talking, I wasn’t sure I still knew its language.
Some who treat compulsive exercise suggest complete cessation of formalized movement. It seems incredibly intimidating to me. I find myself thinking of ways to cheat: choosing more stairs at work, parking far away at the grocery store, pacing while talking on the phone, begging my kids to play tag in the backyard.
The thought of less exercise makes me itchy. It makes me angry and desperate, like I want to throw an object across the room or hit a pillow or a wall. It’s called an addiction: an addiction that very few people think is a real problem.
My husband thinks this is a problem. He wants to go on vacation. One where we sleep and drink coffee in bed, where we eat brunch with pancakes, bacon and fruit, and the rest of the day is ours ― to go boating or visit galleries, attend a play theater, shopping, but not for an hour or two on the treadmill, and not for a desperate search for a difficult running track.
He wants to be associated with someone present, someone who doesn’t need to compensate for pleasure. I want it too ― for him, for me. I want the counting and the chatter to stop long enough to be quiet, listen, and know I’m okay. I’m already good. I don’t need to run away to find what I’m looking for, it’s already here.
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