It’s a chilly Sunday morning in the middle of February. I pull up to the yoga studio to meet my sister for our weekly hot yoga sesh, which is a tradition I look very much forward to. It allows us to catch up about the week, work up a good sweat, and maybe go for a latte afterward even though we probably smell disgusting. The endorphin high helps us not care if other customers crinkle their noses at our post-yoga musk.
After checking in, and getting settled with my mat, I realize that I’m not wearing my Apple Watch. This totally throws off my zen. I get a dopamine hit when all my rings close, so I can kiss that moment of bliss goodbye today. Even worse, I’ll have an unsightly gap in my ring-closing streak. I start to think about other ways I could get my rings to close even after doing intense yoga in a room that’s over 90 degrees. Maybe this afternoon I could go for a super long walk, or go on the elliptical in my apartment. I want to, no I have to, maintain my exercise rings. This thought distracts me during my entire practice, even through savasana.
Whether or not you have an Apple Watch, Fitbit, or other fitness tracking device, you might relate to wanting to reach a certain, yet arbitrary, physical activity threshold. Maybe it’s 10,000 steps, 60 minutes of exercise, or something else each day. And many of us feel like failures if we don’t reach those thresholds we have set for ourselves. Getting to 9,000 steps instead of 10,000 can feel like one of the seven deadly sins if you’re in this mindset.
I have always been a physically active person. As a kid, I played outside as much as possible with my neighbors. But like many after childhood, my physical activity became an obligation, or even a punishment, instead of just for fun. I hit the fitness center in my college most days of the week, or went for strenuous bike rides or runs. My hour-long block of purposeful physical activity was non-negotiable, and I always believed that if my workout didn’t make me sweaty or sore, it was a waste of time and effort.
My belief system told me I had to exercise in order to burn off all the food I ate, otherwise I would gain weight and feel terrible about myself. Thank you, diet culture and the media. I’d make every effort to find ways to cancel out large meals or desserts with exercise. If I felt that I wasn’t able to work off the excess calories I ate, was a failure.
Once I got my Apple Watch, my exercise parameter went from 60 minutes a day to whether or not I closed all three of my rings. I enjoyed it at first, because it provided a visual account of the physical activity progress I made throughout the day. I compulsively checked the progress every single time I sat down, even on the toilet (I’m serious).
The blue ring signified my stand goal, which meant I had to stand up and walk around for at least one minute every hour. This reminder was helpful because studying all day is fairly sedentary, but also disappointing if I was unable to adhere to said reminder due to a meeting or long road trip. Not being able to achieve my Apple Watch goal felt like getting a zero on an assignment in college.
Entering the dietetics major in undergrad was the first time I found other people with the same study habits I had. We are a regimented, serious, scheduled, and organized specimen. We take rigorous notes and strive for those A’s. C’s may get degrees, but they don’t get you a dietetic internship.
As a result, the idea of not doing something you’re supposed to do, like turn in all of your assignments, just does not compute for most dietetics students. It got to the point where I felt a panicky sensation rising if I couldn’t close my rings because of a long road trip, or sick day, or some other perfectly-justified reason. My mind told me that if I didn’t close all my rings, irreversible damage would occur, like how a zero on an assignment can tank your final grade.
I knew this was ridiculous. I knew that I wouldn’t suddenly gain tons of weight if I took a few days off from exercising. I knew how meaningless fitness streaks are on these devices. But I also knew I wasn’t the only one feeling this way.
After I had found Stepping Out by David Sedaris, I started putting together how messed up it was that I got even mildly upset when I couldn’t adhere to my goal. It made me realize I was actually kind of an obsessive person, and I always had been, whether it was grades, my diet, or being physically active “enough” every single day. Diet culture loves obsessive people, they’re the easiest targets.
Enough about me, though, what about you? If you exercise regularly, take a minute to think about why you choose to do so. Is it because it makes you feel energized and happy? Do you exercise because you genuinely enjoy the activities you do? Is it something you do with other people, so you get to feel connected while being physically active?
Or do you exercise because you feel like you have to? If you don’t get 10,000 steps in a day, or close your Apple Watch rings, or work out a certain amount of minutes a day, do you feel like a failure? Do you exercise to compensate for the extra calories you consumed so you won’t gain weight?
Of course, many Americans don’t get enough exercise in their day. We live in a sedentary culture, that’s just the nature of many jobs today. But this blog, and this post, aren’t for those people. This is for the people that feel like bums, deadbeats, good-for-nothings if they take a few days off (or even a few hours off) from exercise or eat a little too much at one meal.
It’s commendable to exercise. It really is wonderful for your body and your mind; yoga has worked wonders on my mental health. Physical activity is awesome, and I hope you can find time for it on most days. But, don’t let it become a tool you use to manipulate your body to look a certain way.
One of the main aspects of diet culture is making you feel guilty about doing or eating certain things, and not doing or eating others. Don’t let impulses to always exercise take over your mind, schedule, wallet, or zest for life in general. Instead, use it as a tool to bring you joy, confidence, and connection.
My exercise physiology professor always said that the best form of exercise is the one you like doing the most. If you find a physical activity you like doing, you’ll be so much more motivated to do it, and it won’t feel like a grueling punishment. Don’t like lifting weights? Don’t lift weights. Don’t like running on a treadmill? Don’t run on a treadmill. If you do like those activities, fantastic! Do those, but try something else if you ever feel bored or unmotivated with them.
Instead of slogging through your daily exercise because you have to, start searching for an activity you genuinely enjoy. Maybe it’s walking around the dog park with your dog so he or she can play with some new doggie friends, or joining an adult sports league with coworkers, or even hooking up your gaming system and playing Just Dance.
Take a few minutes to think about what activities you might enjoy, and give them a try. It might take some trial and error, but you’ll eventually find something that makes you feel happy and free instead of down and defeated.
Most importantly, though, refrain from beating yourself up or feeling guilty if some days go by where you don’t exercise or work out. It’s perfectly okay to take a couple of days off per week, but it can take some time and mental gymnastics to give yourself permission to do so if you aren’t used to it.
You aren’t a terrible person if you decide to skip your evening walk in favor of another episode of Broad City, or if you do 15 minutes of Pilates instead of 60. Your worth isn’t determined by how much or how often you exercise, and it’s definitely not determined by fitness tracker goals. You are enough.
My Apple Watch and I have been through some tough times, but we have come to an amiable understanding of one another. I now choose to not wear it every day to prevent myself from getting caught up in streaks and other nonsense. I still do wear it, though, and I love doing so because it kind of makes me feel like Kim Possible or some other high-tech spy type. Plus, I still get that rush of adrenaline when I close those rings.
But exercise is no longer about being controlled by my watch, maintaining my weight, or feeling like I’m lazy if I don’t fit in a workout. Exercise is now about making more time for the activities I enjoy, and not getting caught up in whether or not they were strenuous enough. It’s about connecting with others and getting some fresh air. Lastly, it’s about appreciating the fact that my body is well enough to exercise, and it can take me wherever I want to go.
As Always, A Book Recommendation
Earlier in this post, I linked to a work of David Sedaris. If you have never had the pleasure of reading one of his works and you enjoy dark, witty, inappropriate humor, then you are truly missing out.
I personally love listening to his audiobooks, as you can hear his personality come out while his reads his own writing. I went through a phase just over a year ago where I listened to all of his audiobooks in a row, and I have never laughed out loud more while driving in my car or tidying up my house alone.
Most, if not all, of his books consist of short stories and anecdotes based on his own life. His family is weird and lovable in the best way, and his story-telling feels authentic and honest. His stories have almost nothing to do with diet culture and excessive exercise, aside from Stepping Out.
The reason I am suggesting my favorite of his books, Calypso, here is that David is a compulsive, obsessive guy, and I found myself relating to him in almost every story. Those of us who have exercised compulsively or adhered to a rigid diet have at least some obsessive traits, and it feels good to have someone to relate to. Plus, his humor is simply unparalleled.
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