#WeGotThis - No.3 - Exercise: Friend or Foe?
Updated: May 27
“I have earnt my crumble and custard today!”
“If I eat this now, I must do that 45-minute HiiT tomorrow”
“I am feeling down today. A run may help me feel better”
“I love how strong I feel”
“If I don’t exercise today I will lose my progress and won’t reach my target weight”
“I may as well eat it all now (usually on a Sunday) and work harder during the week”
“Going out for a family get-together today – must get that workout in this morning”
“Absolutely loved that game (netball) – am buzzing!”
“I feel like I can breathe easier after that – my anxiety has reduced”.
“I didn’t have the time to do anything yesterday. I want to do yoga but I can’t drop my HiiT workout”
“If I don’t look the way I want to – I will have failed”
“Never thought I could complete a half-marathon. Yesssss!”
Welcome to my head again! I’m almost sorry to be inflicting you with it to be honest because it is exhausting reading through it. How can these all come from the same person?
Of course this is just a small snippet and I have left out the insults I would usually add in for good measure. My first blog entry “My Bully” has got this aspect covered.
As you can see there is a mixture of healthy and (very) unhealthy thoughts going on here. You may therefore be surprised that I became a personal trainer and now fervently advocate for the benefits of exercise to our overall wellbeing. I don’t blame you – but since when were people (or anything) simple?
Be in no doubt that if I had not embraced exercise the way I did – I would not have been able to begin my mental health recovery. Honestly, without wishing to sound over-the-top, exercise was ALL I HAD.
Up until now, I have had very little self-esteem (you don’t say?). The one thing I was always good at was exercise. I was that kid whose favourite subject was PE – and she excelled in several activities. I was recognised for my achievements by family, teachers, friends, sports coaches and so it was a safe space for me to ALLOW MYSELF to feel good.
Fast-forward a few years to when everything was crashing down around me.
I couldn’t make healthy relationships - despite wanting to. I couldn’t see that I was loved. I felt separate from everyone around me. What would I fall back on to ease my suffering and to maintain my teeny-tiny sense of self?
Exercise makes perfect sense at this point. It gave me what I needed – accomplishment, self-worth, physical strength, endurance. Eventually when I had the courage to re-start netball (I gave this up for 5 years when I couldn’t face it anymore) it also gave me social connections to others (I chose a fab group of women). Without a doubt, this gave me the ability to endure my mental health illnesses and get to a place where I could begin to heal.
In stark contrast, exercise also became a mental health battle ground. Where there’s a ying there’s a yang! My overall lack of self-esteem and my bully used my main sanctuary as another way to judge and control my thought’s around what I ate, how I exercised, and my appearance. It wasn’t a one-sided battle however. Remember the presence of both positive and negative thoughts at the beginning of this entry? I was able to provide healthy alternative thoughts at times. As with many of you, my relationship with exercise swung like a pendulum – depending on where my mental health was at the time. Therefore whilst exercise gave me what I needed; there were times when it wasn’t healthy.
I strongly feel that there are many of us who can experience this without even realising it. Diet culture which tells us what to eat and how to look; combined with the fitness industry which often backs this up with it’s own ‘fat shaming’, ‘calorie burning’ dialogue; makes Western life a hugely difficult place to navigate. When the dominant messages we are given effectively takes away our self intuition – how can we fight back? In my opinion this creates a breeding-ground for disordered relationships with nutrition and exercise. (Please note that the experience I am explaining here is very different from an eating disorder. Eating disorders are more severe and have their own symptoms and diagnostic criteria – if you suspect an eating disorder then please seek help from a medical professional).
I see several Instagram accounts which can encourage a disordered relationship with food and exercise. Overt and covert messages that we all need to be smaller; leaner; earn our food; restrict food groups; push our bodies to the absolute limit; adhere to strict fitness programmes etc – these are all external factors telling us how to present, move and feed our bodies. In my opinion, this has had a damaging effect on our relationships with food and exercise.
At this point I want to encourage you to simply notice what your feelings/emotions are around food and exercise. Guilt? Pressure? Fear? Anxiety? Do you follow rules or a strict routine? Perhaps you follow ‘healthy eating’ during the week and let go during the weekends? Do you constantly think about your end result of being smaller somehow? Do you weigh yourself constantly? Does your happiness depend on what the scale says?
These are helpful questions to consider. I want this blog entry to let you know that living this way does not have to be a given. Consider the possibility that maybe diet culture is the problem here (I include the fitness and beauty industries here) – not your will-power! Instead why not focus on how do you like to move your body? What makes you feel AMAZING afterwards?
If you want to look into this further then Google Laura Thomas PHD and find her on Insta @laurathomasphd. Her book ‘Just Eat It’ is game-changing. I am also about to start the book by a PT called Tally Rye (@tallyrye) called Train Happy. Both amazing women want to show us how to reject the status quo on what we all ‘should’ be doing; and to start developing an intuitive relationship with food and exercise. I’m working on it for myself and I encourage you to consider it. Exercise and food are sooooooo important for us (vital in fact) – so instead of using them to bat ourselves down, restrict and berate ourselves, why not build a HAPPY and HEALTHY relationship instead?
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