Looking Good

Back in my early twenties, going to the gym was a session of self-punishment. Exercise wasn’t about health, mental clarity or self-improvement.

Back in my early twenties, going to the gym was a session of self-punishment. Exercise wasn’t about health, mental clarity or self-improvement.

Instead, working out was a way to change my body, by punishing it, beating it, whipping it into the ideal image that I had in my head.

I never stopped to question whether what I was doing was actually serving me. I was driven by an undertone of desperation to look different, perhaps even be someone else. No matter how fit I got, I never seemed to measure up in my own eyes. I was never enough.

I also never stopped to question whether my goals were realistic, or even intelligent. My head was stuck on a vision of how I would look if I kept working harder – svelte, toned runner’s legs, six pack abs, sleek yet strong arms; the pretty typical ‘athletic yet thin’ body type that we are spoonfed by the media.

It never occurred to me that no matter how much weight I lost, or how much I exercised, that my unique body shape may never resemble this fantasy version. After all, at my lowest body weight of 54kg (BMI 18.7kg/m2 – right on the cusp of ‘underweight’), I still had a disproportionately larger butt compared to my relatively emaciated legs.

Ribs and hips start to poke out a weird angles when my weight gets that low. And my face looks gaunt and hollow – the kind of bug-eyed hungry look that compels friends and family into telling you to eat more.

My genetic disposition of body fat, skeletal structure and natural muscle distribution is simply not ever gonna give me a swimwear model look. Or if it could, it would require more effort than the 2 hours I was already spending at the gym each day.

Not to mention a very restrictive diet. After consulting an Exercise Physiologist, I was told that I was actually over-training (yes, that’s a thing). We started working on functional fitness, the type of movement that would make real life movement easy and effortless.

I scoffed when she asked to test my core stability; I could plank for three minutes! Yet low and behold, laying flat on my back, I couldn’t lower one leg from the air to the floor without my hips twisting – a sure sign that my inner stabilising muscles were weak.

I was flogging – literally – my larger muscle groups (the aesthetic ones) but totally neglecting the inner stuff that you can’t see but is critical to everyday movement. However, the real wake up call came about six months later.

I severely injured my knee; barely able to walk I began immediate, intensive physio. As I realised the extent of my injury, panic set in. How was I ever going to control my weight without intensive exercise? How could I make myself eat less?? (I was hungry ALL the time.)

What was going to happen to my body? What would people think of me? Immobilised and feeling sorry for myself, the first few days were like I thought. I ate my pretty routine diet, acutely aware that calories in were a lot more than calories out.

Yet a week or two later, something miraculous happened: My appetite naturally dropped. At this stage, I’d been working on mindful eating for a year or two. I knew that I was getting pretty good at self-regulating my appetite without calorie counting, as my weight had been stable for some time. I ate a lot but also burned a lot off.

Yet I still didn’t trust my body – this beautiful, wise, insanely complicated machine that we are all gifted with – to adjust to my new situation. Yet contrary to all my fears and negative assumptions, my appetite totally calibrated. I didn’t gain weight.

In fact, I even lost a little as my muscle tone dispersed. I did not feel ravenously hungry, nor compelled to eat an athlete’s diet. I just craved normal, mostly healthy, food.

This realisation opened up a whole new way of relating to and perceiving my body. Slowly but surely, my attitude towards my body was softening; perhaps it wasn’t the enemy after all? Perhaps I could learn to trust it? Maybe even one day…love it.

Six weeks into physio, I was given clearance to try some low impact activity. With a background in dance, yoga had always appealed to me – I love flexibility and creating beautiful shapes with human form.

Given my childhood history of anxiety, I also suspected that the mindfulness component of yoga would offer extra mental benefits to me. I limped off to a local studio and faced a big lesson in humility. I was no longer one of the fittest, strongest females in the room. My body was starting at Square One.

There was lots I could not do. And I grappled with guilt that this ‘wasn’t really exercise’; it wasn’t ‘hard enough’. Thankfully, I had one of the kindest, most compassionate yoga teachers on the planet guiding me.

Every class, she spoke about learning loving kindness towards ourselves, both in yoga and in life. We were always invited to drop into child’s pose and rest whenever we needed, or simply wanted to. Each class, I was also taught to listen to how I felt.

To develop a mindfulness around how my body was feeling, what it needed that day, what thoughts were swirling through my head and how my emotional state affected the choices I was making in that class, and in my life.

This was revolutionary; listening to my body, feeling what it needed and being self-kind enough to give myself what I needed. For the first time in my life, I started to tune into the natural rhythms of my body.

Some days, I would arrive on my yoga mat energised, clear, ready to sweat and work. Other days, I learned that my body was tired, perhaps fighting a flu or asking me for sleep and I would quietly grab a bolster, cover my heart with my hands, and lie in savasana for an hour. I felt drawn to move my body.

Unlike my gym-smashing days, it was no burden to go to yoga; quite the opposite, I looked forward to going! Slowly, my body healed. And my attitude towards my body totally transformed. I regained my strength.

Yoga did wonders for my injury as well as providing so many other benefits; a lengthened posture, more fluid and graceful movement, superior balance and a much more peaceful state of mind. For two years, yoga and self-kindness were the only forms of ‘exercise’ I practised.

Yet after this period of getting to know my body better, I began to understand that my body was craving – and that I would feel good from – some form a cardiovascular and high intensity training again.

So I returned to the gym.But this time, with a difference. This time around, I was motivated by feeling good.

Of course, it’s always rewarding to see new muscles develop, strengthen and tone too – an outward sign of inner work – but that’s not the main drawcard these days. For starters, I love testing myself. I am fascinated by mentally strong, high-performing people.

One trait such folk tend to have in common is some form of strong physical practice. I like to think that if I can train my brain to deal with discomfort in exercise, I’ll develop greater resilience and focus in other areas too.

Secondly, exercise – particularly the ‘gasp for air’ kind – clears my mind and gives me an endorphin kick that’s unparalleled to few other things in life. Literally about ten to fifteen minutes into a high-intensity workout, I feel a rush of endorphins that’s like a hit of octane.

I feel like I can do, be, feel, or accomplish anything. Thirdly, regular movement makes me very productive. I create some of my best and most meaningful work after I’ve sweated out any distractions.

It’s so much easier to slip into the zone and get my to do list done when I’ve taken care of exercise. Last but not least, I love to feel strong. There’s a quiet confidence that comes with knowing you can hold your own strength.

It’s a trust that your body’s gonna take care of you through the day, you don’t need to think twice about being capable of physical tasks. So yes – these days I do ‘push’ myself but it’s coming from a very different place.

I need a challenge and extending my boundaries and that’s what I focus on first and foremost. But most of all, I love to feel good, and that’s what gets me off my butt and moving my body most days. However, I still listen.

If I wake up with a sore throat or ‘feeling off’, I may do a yin yoga class, gentle walk or – shock! Horror! – maybe even rest. I don’t ‘push’ a genuinely tired or run down body into a pre-planned exercise schedule any more. I still tune in and listen. If my body’s telling me there’s pain or potential injury in any area, I adjust accordingly.

I stop and rest. I adjust. I move with integrity. I appreciate my body and take good care of it. I’m not perfect. I’m not setting athletic world records any time soon. And I don’t look like a Lorna Jane fitness model. But you know what? I don’t care.

I feel healthy. Strong. Whole and complete. And I think that’s the only thing worth pushing for. So try it for yourself – how would life change for you if you exercised to feel good, rather than simply looking food?

Leave a Reply