Trying Too Hard

I can feel myself getting frustrated again. Picking at all of my perceived imperfections. Comparing myself to everyone I see, and feeling like I come up short. This cycle has become so familiar, but it doesn’t get any easier with repetition. One week I’ll feel good, motivated, like I’m making progress. Then the next I’ll feel utterly desperate about the futility of all the work I do for personal growth and self improvement. It’s particularly pronounced when it comes to my life-long struggle with body image.

Despite my best efforts to avoid the triggering, toxic images I used to purposely flood myself with online, somehow they’ve started creeping back in again. Perfect little vegan fitness models and casual yogis. It’s bad enough that they have bodies I could only dream of, but it stings in an especially painful way when I see just how much MORE work I put in for so much less satisfying and aesthetically pleasing results. I know I have a distorted view of my appearance to some extent. And I don’t think I look bad. But after years of diligent, intense, advanced exercise routines, I expected to actually look like someone who prioritizes fitness in their life. Not just someone who works out for 20 minutes once or twice a week.

Even when I’ve felt for years like I couldn’t possibly do any more exercise in a day, I’ve slowly added on more and more things. It never makes any significant or noticeable change though! All it does is make me feel obligated to continue at this more draining routine for fear I’ll somehow gain weight if I stop, even though I didn’t lose any when I started. I’ve recognized for a long time now that this is an extremely unhealthy mindset that impacts my self-esteem, my physical health, and my social life. Still I feel helpless to change it. My fear of looking worse than I do now is all-consuming. I feel resigned to this unsustainable, ever increasing physical workload that will never do anything for me besides keep me where I already am. A place that does not even bring me satisfaction or happiness. It’s no longer about progress, it’s about avoiding an even more pronounced level of self-hatred and disgust.

One thing I have been trying to convince myself of, is the importance of slowing things down/lessening my reps and speed in order to focus on truly good, mindful form and activating the right muscles when I’m moving. Logically I do believe this would be more beneficial. But that disordered, self-hating, fearful side of my brain panics at the thought. But what if I slow down and gain weight? What if I can’t pick it back up again? What if I do go back to what I’m doing now, but am stuck with whatever weight I may put on forever?! It’s these unhealthy thoughts that keep me from changing anything despite my dissatisfaction with my results or lack-there-of.

In the last ten or more years, I’ve never allowed myself a proper “rest” day from exercise. There have only been a handful of days I haven’t worked out, but even those days are not true rest because I workout extra the days before and after to “make up for it.” My ego takes some form of pride in this fact, while also cursing all the people I see taking regular rest days multiple times a week and looking 50x better than I ever have. I’ve just been believing that there is something wrong with me. Their bodies just work better than mine does somehow. Surely if I took rest days, I’d have made even less progress.

I’m beginning to finally open myself up to the possibility that isn’t the case. I was already toying with the concept of rest being valuable and important so that my muscles actually get a chance to heal and build themselves up stronger. I don’t really notice myself gaining muscle mass or strength with the way I’m doing things now. I basically stay where I am. In addition to that, I’ve been reading a lot about the effects of cortisol and weight gain.

I assume I have ridiculously high levels of cortisol in my body at all times, just based on my stress level. What I didn’t realize is that this may not be solely due to my anxiety disorder. Exercise naturally raises cortisol levels, which isn’t a problem in moderation and can even be beneficial. However, excessive exercise can lead to unhealthy levels of cortisol. I don’t think it’s up for debate whether the amount of exercise I’ve been subjecting myself to for the past ten years is “excessive” or not. Have I been shooting myself in the foot this entire time?

It seems too good to be true to imagine that I could do less and have the same or an even better body. My self-flagellating mind simply cannot accept that possibility. Then again, working harder hasn’t seemed to work out at all the way I thought it would. Maybe I really am doing myself a disservice by pushing myself so much. What if I was able to do less, better quality exercise, enjoy my workouts again, have more free-time, feel less tired and stressed, AND look/feel better in my body? It’s so difficult for me to contemplate, let alone begin to test.

I know if I really want things to change in my life and in my body, I’ve got to actually start doing things differently. One of the big road blocks in my way is the fact that to truly know if the changes I implement are working, I need to see where I am right now and monitor that moving forward. It’s so unbearable for me to weigh myself or, god forbid, take photos or measurements. *shudder* But I’m afraid if I don’t, I’ll be too afraid to change anything because I might gain weight without realizing it. Dear god, I need a therapist so badly. Unfortunately I live in the greatest country on earth and that isn’t a feasible option for someone working full-time in the MENTAL HEALTH INDUSTRY!

My sheer ability to ramble on for so long about this topic is evidence that there is a problem. I want to follow that little spark of excitement and curiosity that tells me to switch things up. I know it’s worth it. I know it would be good for me mentally at the very least. I wrote something that struck me as profound last night while I was journaling: Fear is a powerful motivator. I am just afraid of the wrong things.

Advertisement

5 Things I’d Wish I’d Known at the Beginning of My Fitness Journey

1. It Can’t All Be Cardio

For the first five years of actively pursing a healthier, more attractive body through exercise, all I did was run. I ran for over an hour every day. Around 8 miles EVERY DAY. It seemed simple enough. Exert THAT much energy and effort, and you’re bound to have a perfect, slim figure, right? Well apparently not. I did lose about 40-50lbs. in the first year or two. But then I quickly hit a plateau. What was I gonna do, run MORE?! Honestly impossible. I was going through running shoes every single month and my shins were splintering into nothing. I had constant blisters on my feet and marks where my tank tops rubbed against my upper arms. Near the end I did switch to the elliptical instead of the treadmill, but not much changed in my body.

2. Don’t Be Afraid of Strength/Weight Training

I only began to make progress again about six years ago when I started doing HIIT workouts. Even though these are still primarily cardio, they also incorporate a lot of weighted, complex movements. I was engaging muscles I never knew I had, instead of just pounding my legs relentlessly. Gaining muscle wasn’t the scary, bulky nightmare I had imagined it to be. Unless you’re lifting ridiculous amounts of weight, you’re likely only going to be gaining lean muscle which will give your body a tight, well-formed shape. Before I just looked like a slimmer, although still soft and pudgy, version of myself. Not only that, the more muscle mass you have, the more calories you are going to burn even while resting.

3. You Can’t Beat Diet with Exercise

I really believed in the beginning, that if I just worked out an insane amount, I’d be able to eat as much as I wanted. I fell even more into this trap when I became vegan. You can’t gain weight with vegan food! I stupidly thought. Maybe if you have a naturally fast metabolism, this could work out for you, but if your metabolism is a snail like mine by default, you’re going to have to pay attention to what/how much you’re eating if you want to see lasting results.

4. Good Form Over Ungodly Fast and a Gazillion Reps

After years of just trying to breathe as I ran for miles and threw myself through unfamiliar HIIT exercises, I’m still struggling to undo the poor form I’ve adopted in a lot of my movements. In my eagerness to go as fast as possible to burn as many calories as I could in a short amount of time, I ended up wasting time. The more you focus, slow-down, and engage the right muscles in an exercise, the more beneficial it is going to be in the long run. If you let yourself have poor form, you are not only going to burn less calories, but you’re going to hurt your body and develop bad habits that are hard to break.

5. Listen to YOUR Body to Find the Right Alignment

“Don’t round your back! Don’t round your back! Keep your back straight!” I would always hear instructors repeating this like a mantra whether it be in a workout or a yoga class. I guess for most people, this might be important to hear. If your natural tendency is to round your low back, you’re going to pull a muscle or hurt something. HOWEVER, I’ve only recently come to realize that I personally have an anterior pelvic tilt. This means that my pelvis tilts forward causing my low back to arch. For me “flat back” was an arched back. I couldn’t understand why doing the “correct” form always left me with pain and/or discomfort in my low back. Finally understanding my natural alignment has given me the ability to do what feels like rounding my low back to me, but in reality is just bringing it back to neutral. It has been a total revelation to my workouts. I’m able to engage my core far more and prevent my back from aching after doing certain exercises. Another one I’m beginning to work on is the cue “don’t let your knees cave in.” I have naturally exteriorly rotated thighs. This instruction has caused me to put WAY too much of my weight into my outer feet and lead to a weakness in my inner thighs/an inability to keep my weight evenly spread through all four corners of my feet in my workouts.

Regardless of what an instructor in a video might say (I imagine an in-person trainer may have realized these things before me and altered their instruction) listen to what your body is telling you. It is going to save you a lot of grief and possibly spare you serious injury down the line.