Ask me to describe myself, and I’d say something along the lines of, “driven and hard-working.” I assume that those closest to me would describe me in those same words. While these certainly are descriptors of my work ethic as a professional, they are words that I apply to my physical existence. You see, I’ve always been the type of girl who wasn’t inherently talented from an athletic standpoint. But, I’ve always esteemed natural athletes and the admiration of sport is what inspired me to become a physical therapist in the first place. Since you can’t fake natural talent, I mimicked the athletes who inspired me in the way that I could – by creating a work ethic that won’t stop. I started pushing my physical (and mental) limits when I first got into exercise in my late teens. As an adolescent that didn’t feel a huge sense of self-efficacy or control over her own fate, I found my power in my ability to overcome my mind in order to push through physical pain. I continued to foster my mental fortitude by taxing myself physically. How much could I endure? How fast could I go? I’d be lying if I said that I count completion of some killer workouts as some of my greatest accomplishments, never mind my doctoral degree or professional success. What I cared about most was how my body could perform. I loved the feeling of being able to throw down on a workout and demonstrate my prowess. The feeling of finishing a WOD before everyone else made me feel invincible.
Moreover, I’ve always listed fitness as one of my passions. It’s hard to believe that I’ve worked as a fitness instructor for more than half of my life, but it’s true. Admittedly, I have always thrived in front of a group. I competed in public speaking, dance and horseback riding throughout my youth, so I got very used to being in the spotlight from a young age. Teaching fitness classes is no different. I still get a bit of nervous energy before teaching a class. The days of choreographed cardio kickboxing and body sculpt classes were some of my favorites – I vividly remember my nervous energy as I silently reviewed the choreography in my mind as people filled the studio. And nothing has changed – I still look forward to teaching spin classes every Saturday morning, and I still have nerves before each class. I love the energy, the fun and the connection that group fitness provide me, but I also love the sense of purpose.
But, when I sustained a significant injury to my low back in September, I realized that fitness wasn’t just a hobby. It was my identity. I’ll be honest, the first several weeks after injuring myself, I kept showing up at the gym. I’d teach my classes, decrease my weight on my lifts and avoid things that were simply unbearable from a pain standpoint. But, I didn’t stop. I couldn’t stop. If I didn’t exercise, what would I do? I hadn’t taken more than 5 days off from the gym in my entire life. Shoot, I recall hobbling into the gym in an air cast after breaking my foot and continuing to lift weights and ride the recumbent bike. Working out was what I did, and it was who I was.
In mid-November, I was sitting in my doctor’s office after finally deciding to pursue an MRI and X-Ray. As my doctor (someone with whom I have a pre-existing professional relationship, mind you) walked in the room he said to me, “I didn’t know that you were a professional athlete.” Confused, I responded, “Oh, I’m not.” His reply, “Then stop acting like one.” Ouch. Truth hurts, I guess.
While his words were harsh, they were exactly what I needed to hear. After all, I wasn’t making a living off of working out. Teaching fitness classes has always been something of a side hustle for me, and I certainly wasn’t going to be significantly impacted financially if I had to step away from this job. If my livelihood didn’t depend upon my body’s ability to perform physically or to look a certain way, why was I treating my workouts as though they were non-negotiable? I mean, even professional athletes take down-time when they’re injured. I didn’t look down on them for this, did I? Of course not. Moreover, didn’t I encourage my very own patients to take rest when they were acutely injured? Of course I did.
Upon reflection, I realized that exercise wasn’t something I did to maintain my health. It was a coping mechanism, a crutch, an obsession, and dare I say: an addiction.
I’m not demonizing exercise. Many people need to get so much more of it. But, as with all things, too much of a good thing isn’t such a good thing. Particularly when exercise becomes our identity and our driving force in life. After all, we are so much more than our physical bodies. What’s more, our physical bodies can and do fail. There was a period in my life during which I worked with patients who had just sustained spinal cord injuries. I saw first-hand how devastating a major (and often permanent) loss of function is to any person, but especially to an athlete. And while I’m not comparing my situation to a spinal cord injury in any way, I too had to mourn the loss of function, albeit temporary. I’d be lying if I said that I don’t dream about resuming my previous lifestyle. I continue to feel a compulsive pull toward exercise, particularly on days when I’m faced with situations that make me question my power and worth.
Facing our shadow is never easy. But, losing my ability to exercise in the way I wanted to finally forced me to take a long, hard look at what was driving this compulsion – feelings of inadequacy and fear.
Gone are the days of two-a-day workouts, now replaced by meditation, reading, walking, sewing and lower-intensity exercise. On those days that I’m feeling sorry for myself, I remind myself of the mental resilience and optimism that my patients have demonstrated in the past. Faced with a life-altering injury, they found gratitude for their remaining abilities. And more than anything, they realized that they are so much more than their body, and so am I.