I’ve struggled with my weight for most of my life. As a child, a combination of physical limitations and a propensity to self-comfort with food meant I was always on the heavier side. I spent a lot of time feeling uncomfortable and out of place in my own body, and my peers didn’t help – kids are cruel, and I remember one boy especially loved to torment me. His favorite nickname for me was “Fatty”, or, if he was feeling particularly poetic, “Fatty Four Eyes”.
It was difficult to be physically active growing up because I couldn’t play sports, nor could I participate in most recess activities and games. Where other kids could run, jump, and play without fear of injury, I became afraid of movement due to the unpredictability of my knees. I was exempted from most gym classes and even gave up once-beloved activities like rollerblading, soccer, and swimming.
Two double knee surgeries not only failed to solve the problem, but in some ways exacerbated it. After being confined to bed rest, I had to learn how to walk all over again, graduating from a wheelchair, to crutches, to finally being able to hobble around, albeit painfully. My memories are filled with Valium-fueled, feverish nightmares and the heavy, leaden agony that shot through my legs when I tottered out of my hospital bed for the first time.
Following my surgeries, I had to start over from scratch, retraining my legs to go through the motions that they’d been so familiar with before. After all this, one of the few remaining outlets for exercise was to go to a traditional gym and use a treadmill or elliptical – in my opinion, some of the dullest exercises for an adult, much less for a 12 year old kid. Needless to say, I hated it.
After I graduated college and once I got a job at a tech company, movement became more taxing than ever. At least when I was in school I had to walk between classes, to nearby cafes, or occasionally from campus to my apartment and back. Now I sat for hours on end. By the time I got home, I was much too drained to do anything but eat dinner and sleep. It became a vicious cycle of expending less energy to have less energy. And it wasn’t as if exercise had ever been a fixture in my life: with physical limitations from a young age, it was difficult to find something that was the right combination of interesting, affordable, and physically feasible. Plus, I’d grown to equate gyms with extreme boredom as a child.
It wasn’t until my husband and I were planning our very first trip abroad to Ireland that I decided something had to give. There would be lots of walking and hiking on the trip. How could I keep up with everything if I was this out of shape? The thought of being held back by myself was enough to press me into action.
So, I began slowly: first in my apartment’s downstairs gym with a personal trainer, and later – when I was stronger and more confident in my abilities – in small group classes. In the process, I was surprised to learn that I love working out as long as I’m doing something interesting. Challenging myself physically was a new and welcome sensation after so much time feeling helpless, incapable, and out of place in my body.
I learned that it was okay to be out of breath, sweat, and struggle, because I was doing hard work and getting stronger. The euphoric post-workout rush and sense of accomplishment also helped. My breakthrough moment was when I realized that, yes, gyms are incredibly boring, but that physical fitness doesn’t have to take place in a gym, and can actually be interesting. Something more mentally stimulating, supportive, and social ended up being exactly what I needed.
We went on our trip and had a phenomenal time; getting in shape had undoubtedly made a huge difference. Inspired and energized by my progress, I kept up with my workouts when we returned; with time, I even added in more variety – yoga, occasional boot camp classes, pilates, and more. I was feeling great – full of energy, confident, and strong. And, for the first time in my life, I was also seeing results; when I flexed, I even had biceps!
Weight loss wasn’t ever my initial goal. I’d delved into fitness because I wanted to get the most out of our trip; if weight loss happened, then great, but I didn’t want to make it my key focus. In the past I’d also been much too hard on myself when it came to losing weight, setting unrealistic goals and then mentally tearing myself to pieces when I didn’t meet them. I was loathe to revisit that experience; it was inextricably tied to negativity, and I’d experienced more than enough of that to last a lifetime. This time it’ll be different, I thought. This time, I won’t be obsessed with numbers. I’m going to focus on being healthy and strong. I will be proud of my results no matter what.
This was, unfortunately, much easier said than done. Though I tried not to focus on numbers, it was hard not to with weekly weigh-ins and measurements at my gym. At first I was successful at not getting sucked in, pointedly ignoring the number on the scale while celebrating other small victories – things like hitting a two-minute plank or holding a wall sit with a 25 pound kettlebell.
However, after an initial period of steady weight loss that I tried my best to ignore, I hit a plateau. No matter how hard I pushed myself or how many extra hours I spent working out, I was stuck. I tried to steer my thoughts away from that unchanging number, but the harder I tried, the more I became fixated on it. Slipping back into those old habits was too easy, too familiar.
When I expressed frustration at the gym, my trainers told me that the next thing I needed to focus on was nutrition. So, I went on a diet and did a complete overhaul of my eating habits. It changed my life, but not in the way you might expect. In fact, nearly two years later, I am still fighting against its destructive aftereffects.