Exercise and me - from hate to love
My relationship with exercise was shaped by our society's obsession with thinness
**TW: Mention of disordered eating and exercise
*Some time in the early 2000s*
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I stare fixedly ahead, not taking in any of the natural beauty around me. Sweat is dripping into my eyes and I’m breathing heavily. All I’m focused on is the stretch of pavement ahead of me, the time I have left, and the burning in my legs from skating hard for the past hour. I want to take a break, but I don’t deserve one. I’m a worthless, fat piece of shit, and I need to pay for what I did last night. I glance at my watch - 30 minutes to go. I grit my teeth, give my belly a hard, vicious squeeze as “motivation”, and pick up the speed. I overate last night - again. I ate an entire loaf of bread and a box of sugary cereal with fruit juice, and now I have to burn it off.
I never did any sport as a kid. Early on I was assigned the role of the musical one, and my extracurricular activites all involved music: flute and piano lessons, and then at 14 learning to play the church organ and performing at church services for much of my teenage years and early adulthood.
However, I also grew up in the 80s, which meant you were kicked out of the house by your parents to play outside whenever the weather was right. My sister and I rode our bikes, rollerskated, went sledding and ran around the neighbourhood with a bunch of kids all throughout our childhood. We never once thought of it as exercise - we were just playing. On Sundays after church we went on family walks with the dog, which also wasn’t regarded as exercise; it was about “getting some fresh air” and family time. Moving my body was normal to me for the first 18 years of my life - it was neither about achievement nor burning off calories. It was a regular part of my life I didn’t think much about.
That was about to change.
In my early teens I had fully embraced the low-fat lifestyle, denying myself butter (I used mustard on sandwiches instead), chocolate, cake, ice cream, and anything else I deemed “too fattening”. I would use the least amount of gravy I could get away with (despite loving gravy with the reverence it deserves), scrape on the peanut butter I loved as thinly as humanly possible (I could barely taste it), and stopped eating my grandma’s excellent cooking because of her liberal use of oil, cream and butter.
My first boyfriend commented admiringly on my slim body often, and as he was quite slight I was obsessed with wanting to stay smaller than him. I couldn’t imagine anything more cringe-worthy than not fitting in his jeans or - the horror! - being bigger than him.
At 18 we broke up, I started dating a much bigger boy, and a dam broke. Years of deprivation finally caught up with me, and I began to eat. The new boyfriend and I would have midnight feasts, either raiding his parent’s well-stocked fridge or my parent’s grocery store, and I allowed myself all the formerly forbidden foods I hadn’t eaten in three years. The result? I quickly gained 20 pounds.
The new boyfriend genuinely didn’t mind (he was wonderful and knew all about unconditional love), but I was mortified. There was only one goal in my mind: I needed to lose the weight.
I’ll summarize the next few years because it’s a story as old as the diet industry and as boring as a piece of dry toast. I entered an awful cycle of restricting and binging, flirted with an eating disorder, and exercise had only one purpose for me: it was a tool for weight loss. Everything I used to do for fun - rollerskating, riding my bike, going for walks - was now solely dedicated to burning calories. Let me tell you, it really takes the fun out of it.
I devoured fitness magazines, did countless crunches on my dorm room floor, went to exercise classes and even tried to take up running. For a while I forced myself out of the door at 6am, bleary-eyed and yearning for either sleep or coffee, but not allowing myself either until I’d finished my run. I hated every minute of it and eventually gave up, with much self-loathing and more pinching of my stomach.
Luckily, my disordered eating phase only lasted a few short years and has never returned. I gave up dieting years ago, don’t deny myself any food, and I run the other way at the mere mention of cleanses, fasts, or cutting out anything.
Exercise was a different story. I didn’t seem to be able to separate numbers from movement. Counting steps, calories, and minutes worked out clicked on automatically in my brain, and I didn’t know how to stop it. I couldn’t enjoy movement for movement’s sake; the purpose of shaping my body was deeply ingrained in me now.
When I discovered yoga in my thirties it was very much about the performativeness of it. I was mostly interested in showy poses that looked cool, and much less in the spiritual meaning behind it. Focusing on my breath was way too boring for me - I wanted to handstand and do fancy arm balances, and to document it all on Instagram for the likes and admiration. Exercise still wasn’t a simple pleasure to me; it had to serve a purpose.
Until the dogs taught me better.
I’ve gone on walks with dogs my entire life, because I’ve always had dogs. For a few years it was more about weight management than time spent with the dogs, but Lily changed that.
Lily, my irrepressible corgi with her own mind and irresistible personality, taught me patience in important ways. She did things her own way at her own speed, and because her will was much stronger than mine, I learnt to follow her lead. Lily liked to stop and smell - not the roses, but everything else, so I stopped with her. With Lily by my side I finally managed to unlearn the toxic behaviour diet culture had taught me in my late teens and return to my roots: to enjoy movement for movement’s sake. That’s how I had seen it as a kid, and that’s how I relearnt to see it.
Lily passed away last May, but luckily there’s no shortage of dogs in the Verheyden household. Dixie and Mia, our spirited mother-daughter duo, have taken her place, and they’re continuing her lessons in magnificent ways.
Thanks to their joyful and life-loving presence I’ve had the first depression-free January in as long as I can remember! (Maybe it’s a first in my adult life? I’ve always struggled in January before.)
I’ve made it a priority to get outside with them any chance I get, which is almost every single day, and the difference it has made is truly spectacular.
I have energy! I have joy! I feel GOOD! It’s really crazy. We have a route we like to go that takes about an hour and 15 minutes, and those 75 minutes a day have transformed my winter experience. The dogs are so incredibly happy every single time we are out together, and it’s contagious. I’m also at a first name basis with endorphins for the first time in my life, whom I believed to be a myth until recently. They’re great to hang out with!
When I was in the depth of my drinking habit I also walked a lot, but I was often either hungover or dying to get home to start drinking. Now I enjoy the present, with no persistent voice urgently whispering into my ear to get home to where the alcohol is. It’s freedom at a level I haven’t experienced since my late teens 25 years ago. Back then the voice pestered me about calorie burn and how I needed to work harder to lose weight - different story, same level of hell. I went from one prison straight into the next without realizing it.
I’m in the second half of my life, and so many things are so much clearer now. I know what’s important to me, I know what makes me happy, and maybe, just maybe, I have found a way to keep the demons at bay…?
None of this is groundbreaking news of course. We all know that exercise is great for our physical and mental health. But my relationship with exercise was so fraught with the ghosts of using it as punishment and torture, it took me decades before I’ve been able to return to a place of seeing it as simple pleasure.
Now that exercise is fun again I’ve also developed a newfound curiosity about wanting to try new ways to move my body. I’ve taken up crosscountry skiing again, go snowshoeing with friends whenever they invite me, and I’m open to whatever will cross my way next.
Life hasn’t felt that exciting, joyful, and filled with possibility in a very long time. I’m so grateful for having arrived here. It was a long road, but it was worth every misstep, detour, and pothole on the way.
Exercise and me are getting serious.
My second grandbaby has arrived 5 weeks early and she is thriving. Her name is Alice and I’m obsessed!
I was interviewed by our local newspaper.
I was also interviewed by a local radio station.
I cut off my hair and needed to talk about it.
Here is the first review for my new book, and it’s so incredible it made me tear up:
I just finished devouring Miriam’s new book, and found myself furiously highlighting passages and reading them aloud to my husband. I recognize so much of myself through Miriam’s experiences, and I’m so appreciative that she chooses to share them with the world. It made me realize that there are others like me out there, and that I’m not alone in the way I think, and in the experiences I’ve had (and my own dysfunctional relationship with alcohol). This book has made a definite impact on my life and has started my journey into more “sober lit.” I look forward to reading more of Miriam’s future books.
What an honour.
What’s new in your world? Feel free to share in the comments!
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