I spend a decent amount of time at the gym.
Not hours a day decent. But every day decent. For the first time in my life, I can honestly call myself a daily gym-goer. This startling development has been in force since December, so I think I can officially call it a habit. I no longer have to think about it. It just is. I wake up every morning, make my bed, and before I get back into it, I work out. And you know what?
I feel awesome.
Having dealt with both a major weight loss and an eating disorder, I’ve been every level of lazy and crazy. It’s taken me a long time to figure out an activity level that feels comfortable, but not punishing. I’ve done a lot of experimentation over the past year – long but sporadic workouts and binge eating, no workouts and restrictive eating, unpredictable workouts and unpredictable eating – and I’ve finally arrived at what feels like the beginning of a beautiful life-activity balance. I eat a lot of food. I eat a lot of healthy food. I eat a little bit of unhealthy food. And I do something physical every day.
Here’s the thing—you have to exercise. You just do. If you want to be a healthy person, moving your body on a regular basis is non-negotiable. For some people, everyday activity such as walking and doing household chores and walking and taking the stairs whenever possible and walking and stretching before bed and walking (oh, and maybe some walking) is enough. Honestly, for physical well-being, that is enough. Exercise has a million definitions, and approaching activity with a black-and-white mindset is completely unproductive. Walking. Is. Enough.
That being said, I genuinely like to sweat and feel sore and kick my own ass. It clears my head and energizes me, and it keeps me from freaking out about the fact that my diet isn’t perfect. My diet will never be perfect. I would be miserable in a world without dessert. I eat a ton of fruits and vegetables and pretentious superfoods, but I need to be able to go out for a few whiskey sours and a drunk taco every once in a while without being gripped by a sense of panic. Ideally, the panic and the workout would be unrelated, but right now, exercise helps me manage my anxiety. There are worse ways I could manage my anxiety. There are worse ways I have managed my anxiety.
Here’s another thing—the type of exercise you choose will affect your appetite. You can’t suddenly start running 15 miles a week and not compensate by fueling your body differently (assuming your goal is fitness and not weight loss, as it should be if you’re in a healthy weight range). It’s not realistic, and it’s not sustainable. Every women’s magazine wants to tell you that exercise isn’t an excuse to eat more, but I disagree. Exercise is totally an excuse to eat more. It’s just not an excuse to eat junk.
For me, the trick of upping both my calorie expenditure and my calorie intake has been paying attention to the percentage of my diet that comes from healthy food. Not numerically – I don’t count calories or weigh myself or mess with numbers at all, for that matter – but generally speaking. Move more, eat more. But eat more good stuff. Bigger portions of healthy meals. A high-protein Greek yogurt on the side of a sandwich. Brownies after broccoli, when you’re full of fiber and won’t be tempted to take down half the pan. And honestly, I find that the more active I am, the more I want to fuel myself properly for efficient, challenging workouts. Fine, and ensure that my hard-earned muscle tone gets to show.
I used to work out on a quota system. I’d set a minimum number of times a week I had to make it to the gym – say, three or four (again, totally sufficient for general health) – and let my schedule determine when those would take place. But that system was problematic for a number of reasons. First, it became really easy to postpone a workout. I’d find myself thinking, I can still meet my goal if I do it tomorrow. And often times, I still would! But in setting a lower limit on my workouts, I also set an upper limit. I cheated myself out of doing more activity when in reality, I probably could have managed it, and I probably would have felt better if I had. I gave myself a built-in cushion to not make fitness a priority, and because of that, I never pushed myself to a point of maximum returns.
Second, I found that it was much more of an ordeal to actually get to the gym when it wasn’t automatic. I wasted so much time going back and forth and feeling guilty that I probably spent more time agonizing over workouts than I would have spent just doing the damn things. And if for some reason I didn’t make my weekly quota? I felt horrible. I wrote off the whole week as a failure, even if I had still worked out several times. The quota system kept me trapped in a prison of my own making. It was much more about being able to check an item off some disordered mental to-do list than really experiencing the benefits of being active.
Now, I just try to do something physical every day. It can be an easy three-mile jog or a quick upper body weight circuit, but I can find 30 minutes each day (and usually more, once I’ve committed to that) to devote to doing something positive for my mind and body. If I truly need a day off, I take it, and I don’t freak out about it. But I never take more than one day off in a row. I think that part is important. Letting myself go on a bender of inactivity would be the easiest way to destroy the habit. A body in motion stays in motion. That’s simple physics.
Just do something. Every day. It’s a small paradigm shift that has made a huge difference.
I don’t fancy myself a hardcore athlete by any means. But I do know that I’m in the best shape of my life right now. I’ve never felt so consistently good about my body for such a prolonged period of time, and what’s more, I’ve barely changed in size. There’s a difference in shape – I’m firmer, more toned – but I’m realizing more and more that this – thin shoulders, underwhelming chest, flat stomach, curvy hips, muscular thighs – is just what my body looks like. And I’m becoming increasingly okay with that. No, increasingly proud of that.
Have you ever experienced a tiny tweak in mindset that helped motivate a major change? What does your ideal life-activity balance look like?