Every now and then, I still find myself reflecting on the days where I truly perceived myself to be a highly motivated physical trainer focused on trying “to be healthy” and “motivating others” to do the same. What a load of shit that was.
A Prisoner of my own mind
While there are times the pandemic makes me feel restricted from doing things I enjoy – like going on vacation or going to the karaoke bar for my world-renowned Backstreet Boy performances – it pales in comparison to the feeling of being held as a prisoner by my own mind.
Unfortunately, that was a daily occurrence for almost a decade of my life. But after a battle that was harder than any soccer match, CrossFit workout or at-bat on the baseball field, I’m honored to say those days are long gone.
When “trying to be healthy” crosses a line
Earlier today, I found myself wondering how I ever let it get so bad. What was I thinking? And what was it that continued to drag me deeper and deeper into the abyss of an eating disorder? The underlying reason came at me pretty quickly.
That reason, per my ill-conditioned, not fully functioning 20-something year old brain: “I’m just trying to be healthy.”
While I was aware that something was wrong, that same excuse was what dug me deeper. Today, those words are exactly what keeps me in recovery as opposed to what pulls me back into the living hell that was my 20s.
My relationship with food and exercise had become toxic. And after seeing what life is like on both sides of the table, I want to clarify what I mean. Because it might just prevent one person from making the same mistake that I did.
Is counting macros a daily “chore”?
First of all, I want to clarify I am not promoting a diet where macros are entirely ignored. It’s probably impossible to eat a tub of ice cream at the end of every meal without unwanted consequences. With that said, counting macros at the most granular level is not only unnecessary, it’s emotionally exhausting. If your planned split of 50% carbs, 30% protein and 20% fats is off, do you feel like it’s a failed day? If your answer is yes, that’s likely a problem.
How rigid is your meal plan?
I remember developing 1 to 2-week long meal plans and sticking to them no matter what. Even worse, if I had an event in which I’d be “forced” to eat something like Papa John’s or Taco Bell, I made sure that meal plan leading up to it was pristinely “healthy”. The idea of needing to compensate for one meal – or even a few meals – is telling as to whether or not your
relationship with food could use some work.
Eliminating and religiously repeating food groups
This one makes me angry. All throughout high school, I cherished the weekly Chinese food and / or takeout pizza. It was even better when it included a trip to the local ice cream and dessert shop. So how much crap was it when I completely eliminated these sorts of foods from my diet because “I just don’t really like (insert food group here)”? Truth alert – I LOVED (and currently love) Chinese food, pizza and sweets. However, because I “was just trying to be healthy,” I avoided these sorts of foods like the plague. Again – this is unhealthy from a mental perspective.
Similarly, I found myself eating the same types of food on a weekly routine. Chicken breast, vegetables and sweet potatoes – check. Baked salmon, quinoa and cauliflower mashed potatoes – check. Eggs with gluten free toast (I am not gluten free), bacon and dairy-free coffee creamer (I am not lactose intolerant) – check. I had identified “safe foods” that I knew were
healthy and I stuck to them. I even remember bringing these types of meals to gatherings when I knew something else would be prepared. because – you know – “I was just trying to be healthy.”
Guilt, shame and envy
If you’re famished and decide to eat 8 Taco Bell tacos, what is your first thought? Or when you decide to eat 4 brownies after dinner, what do you think? If the answer includes anything around disgust, regret or the need to atone for it, I can confidently say your relationship with food is not a great one. Additionally, if you see someone else partake in the above without any second thought, and you become jealous or “judgy” – that is no better.
No one should criticize themselves for eating any type of food. And no one should feel the need to punish themselves – through fasting or through exercise – for their actions.
Why? Because no one deserves that. Imagine if you spoke to someone after eating 8 tacos the same way you spoke to yourself. If you’d speak differently to them, you are only driving yourself deeper into a shame spiral.
What would happen if you were prevented from exercise for a week…a month… a year?
If you shudder at the thought of not working out for more than a day or two, your relationship with exercise could be unhealthy. I recall the fear of injury or travel preventing me from exercising for more than 2 days in a row. It was a nightmare. And it was not only mentally exhausting, but physically as well.
How flexible is your routine?
There was a time in my life where one day off was unacceptable. My mindset was that someone else was out there working harder and becoming better than I was. Any day off was a day I fell further behind. If I was forced to take one day off, there was no way I could take two.
Even worse, I firmly believed that my day could not start – or that it was not complete – until a workout was performed. Exercise became a “must do” instead of a “want to do.” There was nothing more miserable than the feeling of dragging an exhausted body and mind against their will just so I could feel like I didn’t waste a day.
What is “a workout”?
Today, walking my dogs with my wife is a workout. Mowing the lawn is a workout. Yoga is a workout. In my 20s, a workout was absolutely nothing less than a heart rate-spiking run, a weight lifting session or a bodyweight circuit. I understand that the term “workout” is perceived very differently. And if yours is required to be something that results in sweat, gasping for your breath or sore muscles – you may want to think about it a bit more.
Guilt, shame and envy
Sound familiar? Just like food, a relationship with exercise can easily bring these feelings. If your friend or family member worked out and you didn’t, how do you feel? What emotions come up if you went to the gym but didn’t feel fast? If your body is trying to tell you that you’re too tired, do you get annoyed?
In no way, shape or form should the concept of exercise induce feelings of guilt, shame or envy.
Take it from someone who took this to the extreme and learned the hard way.
While I was in my eating disorder, I honestly felt that my relationship with food and exercise was fine. If anyone expressed concern, I lashed out, claiming I was “just trying to be healthy.” That I’d never felt better. Looking back on it, if my response was lashing out or become defensive, that’s a pretty big red flag.
What “Trying to be Healthy” means to me today
Today, I’ve been in recovery for nearly 6 years. Every day is different. Sometimes I plan to work out and end up sitting on my couch because I just didn’t feel like it. Without guilt! Sometimes I plan to eat a lean steak for dinner and end up ordering a double cheeseburger with fries. Again without atoning for it the next day!
There are times these thoughts might spring up, trying to unveil their hellacious, ugly heads. But the lessons I’ve learned, the experiences I’ve gained, the support system I have and most importantly, the self-awareness I’ve developed is more than enough to drive those evil thoughts away.
Ten years ago, I thought “I was just trying to be healthy.” My perception of healthy was farther from reality than one could ever imagine. Most notably due to my relationships with food and exercise. If I could reach out to my 20-year old self today, I’d let him know that in a heartbeat. I’d let him know there’s no need to hate himself for eating a pepperoni pizza or not going to the
gym. No one deserves to feel like they’re a failure. Especially when that feeling is driven by actions that, in reality, are entirely normal – and dare I say – actually healthy.