The (Mindful) Exercise Equation

I struggled for a long time with exercise, and it came as a surprise in all the different ways I did: too much, too little, no motivation, a lot of motivation with an asterisk* (from my exercise addiction days)… finding a balance was difficult not only in my body and schedule but (mostly) in my mind.

I think this is not only a common struggle among, well, everyone who hears messages about the latest workout trends and how to become your most fit self in the New Year… but, I think it’s a huge trend among athletes exiting their sports…

Growing up playing sports, and then being a collegiate athlete, I always exercised. I wanted to be the best, but there were two phases of exercising through organized sports in my life: 1) I had endless energy and motivation to do it; and 2) because it was part of the deal: college sports = required workout sessions.

I know there are so many people who finish their college athletic careers and feel this sense of, “What now?” They’re either still really competitive, used to someone telling them exactly what to do for a workout, feel burned out from all the hours in the gym… or, a mixture of all three.

Of course, my experience is unique because I was addicted to exercise, quite literally. (And, when I say that, please know that’s not a good thing!) While some coaches and my peers saw me as having extreme discipline they could only dream about having, other professionals I worked with and who witnessed my drive to get fit and burn calories saw it as downright dangerous.

When I exercised, it started to become less about trying to get stronger/faster/better at my sport, and more about shedding excess fat, burning off my lunch, and finding a fast-paced outlet so I wasn’t bored.

The problem with turning to exercise was that I was doing way more than was necessary and it became alarming when I was run down and on the brink of serious injury. If someone saw me exercising, it was rare – I used the outdoors and the secrecy of my bedroom to come up with calorie-torching exercises, as well as noted the less occupied times at the gym to find my own corner of torture. But, if someone did see me, they would know I was on a mission. Don’t talk to me, my mind is focused on the next 10 calories I had to burn…

When I was at my first college, we had weights almost every morning before class, but if we didn’t, I tried to sneak out to run a few laps around campus before my roommates woke up and before 8 AM class. Once I was called into the trainer’s office and was told that someone spotted me running. It was late summer in the South and I was wearing pants and a hoodie, admittedly cold in my thin state… but, to others, it looked like a makeshift sweatsuit designed to burn the maximum calories in secret.

When I was at my treatment center and was allowed exercise, I began with walking and yoga, frisbee and jump-rope. The staff there helped me learn how to tune into how my body felt and how to incorporate fun and enjoyable exercise, a thing I wasn’t aware was actually a thing… later, I was awarded passes to go to the gym and with that, I was given guidelines: one hour at the gym, a maximum of half the time (30 minutes) performing cardiovascular exercises – that was my challenge.

“What’s the point of working out if it’s not to burn calories?”

I didn’t know the answer to that for a while. Competitive exercise – even self-competitive workouts like seeing calorie counts on equipment and tracking my progress with time and weight I was able to lift – were harmful to me.

So many of my friends quit playing collegiate sports and slimmed down in what seemed like a month! I was so jealous and hateful of my own body for not doing the same!

Once I finished sports, I wanted to keep working out because I liked the structure and the feeling of being strong and powerful. In the back of my mind, I still hated that my body was ruined by being “so big” from sports.

Crossfit seemed like a good idea to give myself a competitive outlet, but I’d want to do more than other people. Yoga became a comparison and slow. Running encouraged me to do more and more (I even ran on my breaks in college volleyball preseason… hard to imagine that today.).

In the end – and this is the takeaway – I had to stop exercising for a while. I had to get away from people and numbers and the temptation to (always!) do more.

We hear about “self-care” a lot these days, and part of that self-care is self-awareness of what you need. It’s stepping away from people, situations, and activities that do you more harm than good. It’s choosing to say “No” to something you really want to do, but know it’s not good for you. For me, stepping away from excessive exercise, saying “No” to FitBits and calorie trackers, and removing myself from situations that I found myself comparing, became “self-care.”

While my running friends were doing two-a-days on the track and pavement, and my gym friends were doing the same with cardio and weights, I had to… not.

You can imagine my competitive mind and need to feel my body come alive loving my desire to keep up. But… I had to separate and remove myself to learn to give up my temptation. Self-care.

When the fitness devices blew up, and Orange Theory and gym classes promising to burn extreme amounts of calories came knocking at my inbox, I had to click “Delete.” I tried these classes and dabbled in believing I could handle it… I could, but I wondered how long it would be until I fell down that black hole again, so I stopped buying into the beliefs other people told me about exercise.

When I talk about “mindful exercise,” I used to think it was this big buzzword in the yoga and meditation space. It’s painfully slow and ineffective, I believed. But, once I remembered that exercise was a celebration of what my body could do, and I could stop or continue at any point, that is when I redefined mindful exercise for myself.

I am a big believer in exercise, much because I stopped doing it for a while and experienced too much energy and anxiety about things I’ve never experienced. What I learned from my break was this: I can move my body in ways that feel good and no fitness tracker can tell me that when I’m mindful about the moment. I can move to break up my day and then forget about exercise for the rest of it. If I miss a day, I can trust my body to know what to do without exercise. I know that what’s best for myself (“self-care”) is getting back in tune with my mind and body connection. And, practicing mindful exercise is about no comparisons, no calorie counters, and no self-judgment.

Next time – my exercise routine and home gym “must-haves.”

Did you see? I updated my page to include a Speaking section, here! I’m excited to include you in my story, so, as always, thank you for reading!