My Fitness Journey: From couch-potato to addict
I'm writing this as I lay in bed wearing my full gym gear trying to motivate myself to go out into the cold and walk to the gym. I was scrolling through Instagram this morning - something I rarely do nowadays (but that's a post for another day) - when one of my favourite YouTubers posted a short tutorial. Whitney Simmons is a personal role model because her approach to fitness has such a positive approach. Her life motto #itsabeautifuldaytobealive is perfect and she's all about getting moving your body, whilst setting realistic expectations. If you were to stumble across her Instagram it would be easy to feel bad comparing yourself to her stereotypically toned and beautiful figure. However, Whitney's message is all about the importance of contextualisation. If you found her by accident you wouldn't know that a) she's had a boob job b) she goes to the gym EVERY DAY c) fitness is literally her job. When you take all of that plus genes into consideration it's crazy to compare yourself to her body. Not to mention comparison is the root of all evil, but you already know that.
Back to me. All this scrolling got me thinking about my fitness journey that started when I was a kid. My parents are both super active and we were signed up for all kind of sports. Mainly, I'm pretty sure it was to get us out the house, but I appreciate all the early morning and late night rides to fixtures! Okay, so here's a non-exhaustive list of all the forms of exercise I tried as a kid: swimming, rugby, baseball, basketball, soccer, gymnastics, ballet, kickball, field hockey, figure skating, ice hockey, netball, rounders, cross-country running, golf, dance, yoga, aerobics, pilates, tennis, skiing, karate, judo, track and field. I think that's it? Basically, a lot. Needless to say, keeping fit wasn't an issue when most nights of the week were dedicated to exercise. I called my mom last night and she mentioned her dedication to sport was to find one that we liked! Sighing she admitted it worked because now I know I like tennis and hockey. So, I guess it was worth all the effort?
When I turned 10 I gave up most of my sports teams. I just wasn't interested anymore. Going from exercising most days to becoming a couch potato I didn't adjust for in my eating habits. In fact, I was eating more because the time I'd spent doing sports was now incorporated into eating time. You get the picture. So, basically I started putting on weight. Body love is a topic I've spoken about many times, but how this impacted my training is important. At first, when I moved to England, I got back into regular sports. Even training for a triathlon when I was 12 and I was captain of the hockey team at 13. But, there was a shift during high school. I started to become obsessed with using exercise as I way to lose weight. Calculating how many calories I'd burned and doing at home ab crunching to get the body of my dreams. The problem? Body dysmorphia has no end goal in mind. It's crazy looking back now at the photos from those times. I was so slim, but that wasn't reflected in my hatred of wat I looked like in the mirror.
Sixth form was tough for me emotionally and as ever my favourite coping mechanism was eating. So began this horrible cycle of bingeing then starving myself coupled with exercising like mad. I started hating it. The love and passion behind the sports and activities had died. All that was left was pure disgust at my physical appearance propelling me to push it to the limits. I don't think this was helped by a concerted effort by a particular teacher, who when we were 16 implemented compulsory circuit training in a bid to improve our sports ability. But, in reality I believe it was to motivate her to lose weight. I internalised this approach and eventually stopped going to practice altogether.
These narratives around exercise is all around us. Watching YouTube videos I'm hit with ads asking me 'So, you wanna lose fat' or bus stop advertisements of photoshopped women in sports bras. Exercise has become an intrinsic part of the lifestyle industry. The same industry that thrives off us feeling insufficient. The simple realisation of I'm good enough swipes all the power from out of their feet. And, don't get me started about 'Diet Coke' or 'Sprite Light'. In the words of my mom, "If you wanna have a coke just drink the fricking sugar". I understand now, as I get older, that both my parents principle of everything in moderation is the truth. But, before I embark on my exercise epiphany. Let's talk about the rock-bottom.
Starting university I was the fittest I'd ever been. I was doing yoga everyday and was strength training at the gym 5 times a week. I'd started weights training when I was in Turkey, where the only gym nearby was a men's bodybuilder gym. That sure as hell makes every other gym experiences easier. Massive men who were shooting steroids and lifting crazy weights. The best part? Absolutely no room for comparison. Aside from the critical gym owner putting me on one of those horrible body-scanners and saying my physique was that of a 27 year old. No shade to 27 year olds, but I was 19. And, even if I didn't already feel crap about myself, the look of disappointment he gave me was enough to run until exhaustion on the treadmill for weeks. All in all though my initial foray into weights was motivated by a desire to feel mentally better.
To this day concentrating on mental health improvement is the optimum way for me to workout. I even spoke to my trainer, when I was considering entering a powerlifting competition, and she said that she can tell who will be her most successful clients on the first meeting. The ones that want to have a six pack or are there because their significant other wants them to lose belly fat never last long.
Okay, so rewinding back to university. Obviously there was a shift in my lifestyle. Considering my burgeoning social life, starting dating and keeping up with school work meant that my super strict exercise regime was sidelined. Daily yoga lasted about two months and then gym was reduced to once or twice a week. That being said I had taken up rugby and rowing, which were keeping me busy. My body started to change. The old fears about not being good enough and needing a flat stomach, no hips and a thigh gap crept in. For the record, there is no way my body could ever look like someone say Karlie Kloss. It's just not in my biology. Even when I was pre-pubescent I had considerable hips and thighs. But, even if you know that you could be skinnier or aspire to look like these 'supermodels' I've got some good news for you - you don't have to. "IT IS NOT YOUR LIFE'S PURPOSE TO LOSE WEIGHT." Repeat it with me now.
After all the pressure we put on ourselves to work hard, stay sociable and all the other stuff you do to work towards your goals. Your body is not the place for you to perfect. Your body is you. Your body only wants love and appreciation. It's time to get on the same team - please!
Of course, I didn't learn this lesson just yet in our story. Instead of holding my lil belly and caressing my thighs, a real hatred towards myself boiled up inside. I went from loving exercise for my mental health to using my lack of exercise to torture myself again. This goes completely against the point! It's a seriously crazy state of mind we operate in. Going into the summer of first year I re-signed up for a gym membership in the South of England. I forced myself to go to the gym six times a week, even if I was physically sore. Not to mention, I'd bike 20 minutes there and back. Weights became a great centre for my obsession. I began recording how much I was lifting for how many reps and increasing both these factors almost daily. My body was struggling to recover - I'm surprised I didn't get injured. I was guzzling protein shakes and considering taking Creatine.
Second year of university came around and I pummelled all of my energy into working out. My rowing coach gave me a workout plan and, in addition to my rowing training, I would be in the gym most days. At my peak I was working out 9 times a week (not including ergos and water sessions). You read that right, twice a week I would workout morning and evening. It became a point of pride. I lived in my gym clothes. I'd show off to anyone who'd listen about how much weight I was lifting or how often I'd break a sweat. I was going through shampoo like crazy and even re-applying makeup sometimes three times a day. Madness. If I wasn't in the gym I was thinking about it constantly. How could I optimise my muscles? Watching fitness YouTubers, who often weren't even working out as much as me. My local pts and I were onto nicknames and I'd drag unwilling friends to classes as often as possible.
The reason I started chilling out was pure necessity. When I moved back to Canada, I didn't have the means to go to the gym everyday. One notable moment was when I was on holiday visiting my cousin. We'd gone to the gym 2 out of the 5 days I'd been there. On the third day I cried when my mom suggested we go out to lunch instead. This was all behind clothes doors, but I could tell my friends were getting sick of it and close ones looked concerned.
Coming back to Canada I gradually reduced my workouts to 5 times per week then 4 times per week with two yoga classes. This transition did wonders for my mental health. I started remembering why I loved yoga to begin with. My relationship with my body has always been the most nurturing when I'm practicing yoga. As my flexibility grows, so does my confidence and happiness levels. Moving meditation it definitely is. During second year yoga wasn't even on the agenda. It was an inefficient way to spend time when I could be pumping iron. Also, I didn't have space in my box room for a mat on the floor.
Moving to Belgium I've re-calibrated my fitness goals. The university gym has very limited opening hours and rather than fighting against the schedule I've settled with 2/3 sessions per week. I go with my friend Jessica and I get to teach her how to lift weights sensibly. I'm back to my roots. Lifting heavy when I feel determined and going home when my body aches. Returning to daily yoga has done wonders for my self confidence. I was triggered yesterday evening by a well-meaning friend describing her training routine and eating habits in details. I came home feeling like I wanted to cry. Calming myself down I reminded myself my body isn't a machine that I need to perfect. My body is my home and I love it. Exercise is building your confidence, your happiness and feeling stronger. Exercise isn't a stick to beat your sense of self.
All my love, Sam