In tenth grade English, I wrote a persuasive essay on the subject of making gym class an elective.
For ten years I had endured the humiliation of being naturally uncoordinated and completely un-athletic — I was picked last for kickball, taunted for being afraid of a volleyball flying at my head, and repeatedly endured the time honored tradition of having my glasses smashed against my face during each rousing game of dodge ball.
As if the physical and emotional mortification weren’t enough, my class mates and teachers assumed that I was unmotivated, out of shape, and not a team player. Never mind the fact that I got good grades, loved to read and write, and was active in band, orchestra, and the arts. Never mind that I marched around a football field and along miles-long parade routes every other weekend. Never mind that I lost 43 lbs. between the ages of 16 and 18. Never mind that I wore a size 7. If I couldn’t put a basketball through a hoop or score a soccer goal, I was a loser. I was lazy. I wasn’t good enough.
Even during that time period when I was at my thinnest, physical activity wasn’t something I excelled at. One particularly painful memory took place during my senior year – where, at age 17 or 18, wearing a size 7, and in probably the best shape of my life – I had to “make up” a few missed gym classes. It must have been winter, because instead of doing a few leisurely laps around the track, I begrudgingly found myself in the musty-smelling weight room, surrounded by football and basketball players, cheerleaders, and soccer girls, all talking about their drunken weekends while admiring themselves in the floor-to-ceiling mirrors on three of the four walls. The only thing making the afternoon remotely tolerable was that the guy I was dating had come with me. We climbed onto side-by-side elliptical machines, where I set a moderate pace and planned on flirting and laughing for the entire allotted time period. He, on the other hand, being active in cross country and track, set out on a more aggressive pace and quickly encouraged me to do the same. I gave it a good effort, but despite being thin, despite being in shape, and despite my attempt to impress him, I was never be able to catch the frantic pace he was used to when competing. I knew he was only trying to encourage me, but when I couldn’t measure up I was left with the familiar feeling of inadequacy.
After a lifetime of these and similar instances, it’s no wonder that exercise and physical activity trigger negative feelings in my brain, and I’m surprised that it’s taken me this long to recognize how these feelings have negatively impacted my mental health.
I’ve written in the past about how I simply do not enjoy working out, aside from swimming, kayaking, and walking or hiking. But it wasn’t until COVID that I realized why I gravitate away from competitive sports, aerobics classes, or exercise equipment with harsh, glowing numbers measuring every step, every breath, and every second.
Six to eight months before COVID shut everything down, I had finally found an activity I enjoyed – I swam laps at a nearby pool 2-3 times a week and had even begun to attend an aqua Zumba class. This pool was housed in a small, local library/community center. There were no glaring bright lights, no buff super athletes, and no judgmental competitors. Zumba class included women of all ages, shapes, and sizes, and I felt as comfortable there as I did with my friends. This was the way I preferred to stay active – in a welcoming, judgment free zone with no intimidation and no clock or scale measuring what I had accomplished. Still, I left the pool each time feeling cleansed, clear-headed, energetic and limber. And yes, my jeans had started to sag just a little bit, which was an added bonus.
But when the country went into lock down, I could no longer rely on the pool – for exercise or something that made me feel good about my mental health. Like everyone else adjusting to unprecedented restrictions, I did my best to stay active by walking my dogs and doing simple exercises at home. But I quickly lost interest and motivation. I was bored, I was lonely, and I was only doing these things because I felt obligated. Experts on TV, doctors on the Internet, and society as a whole soon began talking about how important it was to stay active even though gyms were closed and classes and group sports were cancelled. Not only did it help us stay healthy, but it would keep our mental state positive, they claimed.
So I pressed on. I walked when it was 90 degrees and humid. I strapped our new, 60-lb. dog into her harness and took her through our neighborhood, struggling to contain her strong, sixty-pound frame when she pulled and darted and startled as she adjusted to her new home. And it didn’t take long for exercise to become a stressful, negative notion again.
When the weather turned chilly, J set up an old elliptical in our basement. I hopped on it a few times a week for maybe a month. It didn’t take long for my legs to start burning and for me to be soaked in sweat. But I kept pushing. I obsessively watched the glowing numbers on the display tell me how much I had accomplished – or how much I had failed. Within a matter of weeks I had given up on the elliptical completely. It wasn’t because I wasn’t seeing results – I was, however small. But aside from the small positive change it was making on my body, the elliptical represented nothing but negativity in my mind. When it came to getting on the elliptical, I felt like a child who was being forced to take piano lessons because it supposedly taught them discipline and made them well-rounded. Even when I did complete a session, regardless of how many miles I covered or how long it took me to cover them, it was never enough. At first I thought this mindset was simply a matter of changing my perspective – that I should be proud of myself for doing 5 minutes or 50, 1 mile or 10. But then I realized that it wasn’t about the numbers. I simply did not care about measurements. I didn’t feel accomplished regardless of what the stupid display said, and I didn’t feel good or refreshed when I finished. I hated the elliptical and was angry at myself because I’d grown up hearing that all exercise should make you feel accomplished and refreshed. But this simply was not the case.
So yes – most exercises and physical activities trigger negative responses in my brain and uncomfortable feelings in my body. This means that sometimes what may be good for my physical health may be bad for my mental health. What am I supposed to do with that? Is this normal? Why does society judge people who don’t find joy in exercise? What am I supposed to choose when something that is good for my physical health (the elliptical) makes me hate myself? And what do I do when something that is good for my mental health (Netflix & chocolate) makes me inactive?
Why don’t you just ask me which leg I prefer to amputate – the left and right have equal value!
When I started this post, I was hoping that I’d come up with some sort of answer by the end. But I think this is one of those subjects that’s going to constantly be up for debate – and the answer will change depending on each individual.
I leave you with a quote from a book I recently read while doing research on sexual suppression in conservative religious communities. I found that many of the themes in this work that focused on sex were relevant to the constant push and pull between mental health and physical health:
Maybe rhythm, not balance, is the key to not falling off the too-much-or-too-little pleasure plank. Maybe here is where grace can enter. Allowing ourselves a bit of time in each place rather than continuously monitoring moderation. A rhythm of feasting and fasting. Of indulgence and denial. Lent and Easter. Based on attention for who we are, how we are wired, what we can and cannot handle, what brings harm, what brings joy … rhythm – Finding one that is danceable, livable, maintainable. A time for work, a time for sex, a time for service,
a time for cake ~
Shameless by Nadia Bolz-Weber