Health & Wellness, Opinions, Special Projects

From donuts to downward dog: Working out the body and mind

As a kid I routinely binged on four donuts for breakfast, which was balanced out by a youthful metabolism and a day structured by team exercise.

Growing up, my parents had always insisted that I was involved in some group activity, so senior year when I decided to quit playing competitive soccer after nearly my entire life, there was a huge shift.

Prior to this, I never had to think about my health. It was something I took for granted and came with an ease I thought would last a lifetime.

At the time, I was so burnt out from three practices a week and tournaments on the weekend that I didn’t exercise at all. To try and stay healthy, I barely ate. I remember senior year I’d ignore my stomach pains and wait as long as I could to eat, spending most of my time at school drained of energy because my body lacked nutrients. It helped me stay thin, but it was harming my mental health as a result.

Eventually I realized that what I was doing wasn’t healthy, and being skinny wasn’t worth starving myself.

Though healthy exercise was implemented into my routines for most of my life, I really had no understanding on what it meant to be healthy. To me, being healthy was being skinny, a misconception many hold, and a privilege I experienced with my five-foot eleven-inch stature and busy schedule.

I had no real understanding on why exercise was important, why eating healthy mattered, and why all these unhealthy coping mechanisms were damaging not only to my physical health, but my mental health as well.

It’s impossible to understand your health by forgoing one or the other. Health is a codependent relationship of the physical and mental, and in order to have good health you must care for both.

For a long time after I quit soccer, I didn’t exercise at all. I didn’t care enough about my body and myself to invest that energy into my health. It wasn’t until I got older and started having true appreciation for my body, and realizations that the health from my youth was fading that I began understanding the importance of exercise.

Still, it isn’t easy. Knowing you have to exercise and doing it are two different things, and if you’ve made a habit out of not exercising it can seem so out of character and foreign to put on running shoes and go run a mile. The important part of exercising is finding some form of exercise that feels good to you. Not everyone likes to run, not everyone likes yoga. You may realize you hate jogging and instead start swimming laps.

When I first started caring about my health I thought there were rigid rules about being healthy, but there aren’t. You don’t have to work your way up to running five miles a day or do sit ups until you have a six-pack. You don’t have to drink protein shakes and nibble on carrots.

Health isn’t one dimensional, there isn’t one way to do it, or even a right way. Having good health means listening to your body, and responding accordingly.

For me, I’m grateful to have found exercise that doesn’t feel like it to me. My favorite being roller skating—a pastime I can spend hours doing without even realizing the calories I’m burning.

A little over a year ago I began consistently practicing yoga, an exercise I had discarded years ago. It was too slow for me, too boring. It wasn’t until I found the app Downward Dog, which allows you to personalize the length and focus of your workout, that I realized I loved yoga. In a year I’ve transformed from someone who could barely bend past her knees, to someone who can almost lay her palms flat on the floor. Yoga’s also helped expand my patience, and in turn my mental health. I realize the power of focusing on my breath and have learned to appreciate quiet moments.

And though I hate running, lately I find myself lacing up my shoes and running around when the morning is still cool. The first few times I’d come home, panting like a dog laid out in the summer sun, and declare, “I hate running.” But I kept going out, not because I have some new sparked passion for running, but because it’s reminded of that feeling of pushing yourself to exhaustion that I only got from coaches yelling at me on the field. It’s a feeling I used to dread, that is now missed.

The most important part of my health journey through transitioning from adolescence to adulthood has been the importance of my mental health. We all tend to be harder on ourselves than the world is. We all are able to look in the mirror and quickly identify faults that others may never notice. It’s important to remember to be kind to your body above all—whether that be by making sure it had adequate food to sustain itself, or by creating a dialogue with your body that is compassionate instead of condemning.

It’s okay to gain weight. In quarantine, the comforting fact is that most of us have. It’s healthy and normal to not fit into the same size pants that you did in high school. It’s normal that your body weight fluctuates. Most importantly though, remember your worth never derives from your body.

Personally, I never check my weight on a scale. For a long time I was hyper-focused on a number that I wanted to be. In high school I’d dreamed of being a Victoria’s Secret Angel, and looked up the models’ weights. I’d have to get down to 135 pounds.

Now I’m somewhere around 160 pounds. I couldn’t tell you the exact number because I don’t know. And I don’t care. I can look in the mirror and judge if I’ve been overeating or not, and adjust accordingly.

But honestly, with my gained weight I love how my thighs have filled out, converging between my legs annihilating the thigh gap I used to strive for. I love how my full body shows that I’m healthy. I love how the food I eat energizes me. I love feeling comfortable in my body and not being concerned on a number that means nothing in reality.

As we have discussions about health it’s imperative to have an approach that is kind to ourselves. Health is a struggle, it can be a battle, but really it’s a journey. There are ups and downs. Days when you feel so accomplished and others where you feel like you’re at ground zero. Keep on.

Don’t get fixated on what other people are doing, or what weight you need to get down to. Our body isn’t some object of vanity to be picked and prodded, but an extension of ourselves to be honored and cared for. Don’t deny it food because you’re trying to lose weight, or do a rigorous exercise when it’s tired.

Learn to listen to your body. Become in tune with your mental and physical health, and respond with love.

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