"Where are you going?" my coworker asked. I'd just completed a full day of retail work, and almost immediately after clocking out, I'd hopped into the store's employee bathroom to change out of my work clothes and into my workout clothes.
"The gym," I answered as I headed for the store's double doors.
"You've got energy!"
But I didn't really — I was physically exhausted from being on my feet all day, and I was emotionally exhausted from helping customer after customer for hours on end. Still, I hit the gym that night — and on so many other nights (and days) like it — because back then I didn't feel good about myself, or my body, if I didn't exercise nearly every day.
I realize now my relationship with exercise during that time wasn't a healthy one, that it was tied to low self-esteem, and that there were a lot of contributing factors. I was in a toxic relationship with someone who was growing more and more abusive the longer we were together, and being with him was decimating my sense of self-worth for a number of reasons. (I also knew my appearance mattered a great deal to my then-boyfriend, so I felt pressure to stay fit for him.) Another reason I was struggling with my sense of self-worth: after graduating college with honors, I couldn't find a full-time job for more than a year, much less a job in my chosen field. I'd majored in English with a concentration in writing, but after graduating, I didn't get a piece published for nearly two years.
On top of all that, my whole life people had praised me for being fit and thin, so I felt a lot of pressure to maintain that image. To put it simply: my life felt out of my control in so many ways at the time, I cared a lot about what other people thought of me and my body, and I (wrongly) didn't feel like I had much to be proud of — but I could control the state of my fitness, and I could be proud of how "in shape" I was.
Of course, it's also true that working out frequently helped me manage my anxiety and depression — both of which were major at the time — and that's a good thing. Even though my relationship with exercise wasn't healthy back then, I'm grateful I had one, because I feel like it acted as a metaphorical life jacket for me during one of the darkest times of my life. Since then, I've realized I've been using exercise to manage my mental health and self-esteem since childhood. I've had some sort of exercise routine for as long as I can remember, and that habit has served me well in so many ways. But as a kid, "working out" looked like hiking in the woods with my dog, biking around my neighborhood, going to gymnastics or volleyball practice, doing cartwheels in the grass, playing tag with friends, stretching in front of the TV, or swimming in my parents' above-ground pool. It was fun, and it was more about feeling good and getting stronger than it was about looking a certain way.
The more time has passed since I started getting my writing published, and ended things with my abusive ex-boyfriend, the more my relationship with exercise has started to resemble the fitness routine of my childhood, and I'm so glad. Over the past several years, I've had gym memberships intermittently, but I've mostly been taking lots of long walks in the woods, at local parks, or down city streets. I've had an on-and-off relationship with stretching and yoga, and I've gotten way more into biking. My workout routines have ranged from daily walks to three gym sessions per week to what I've been up to all of 2020: an average of two long bike rides or long walks per week.
These days, my exercise routine is almost entirely motivated by my desire to stay healthy and get outside rather than wanting my body to look slim and tight in a bathing suit.
I'd be lying if I said I no longer care about my appearance, but I feel like it plays a smaller role in my motivation than ever, and that's liberating. These days, my exercise routine is almost entirely motivated by my desire to stay healthy and get outside rather than wanting my body to look slim and tight in a bathing suit. I often choose rest over exercise if I feel like that's what my body needs (especially since I was hospitalized in 2019). Whether I'm dealing with migraines or menstrual cramps, if I'm having a particularly painful week, I tell myself it's OK if I can't manage to work out even once that week, or if all I do for seven days straight is stretch before bed.
Obviously, the mental and physical health benefits of exercise are undeniable, which is why one of my goals for 2021 is to increase my average weekly workouts from two long bike rides or long walks per week to four. That said, I know from personal experience that sometimes working out less can actually be the healthier choice. My body may be softer than it used to be, and my strength and stamina may be less impressive, but I'm much kinder to my body (and my mind) now than I was when I was hitting the gym all the time. Maybe someday I'll go back to exercising nearly every day — or possibly even daily — but for now, less is more.