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Exercise Obsession

I was in graduate school when I first worked up the courage to go see a therapist. I was studying hard for my masters, cramming my entire two-year program into one. Holding the status of "Super Senior," I was coming back from my hip surgery, training at a high level, and becoming increasingly frustrated by the way my body was healing (or not healing) from the surgery. 

Despite the heavy workload, I loved graduate school. I loved the conversations my classmates and I had about political ideologies and literary theories. I loved connecting the dots between fiction and reality, learning about the human experience in numerous, myriad ways that made my life feel smaller and brighter all at once. I loved my teachers, my classmates, and the camaraderie that sprouted between students of all ages. The only part of my Super Senior year I didn’t love was my eating disorder.

Post hip surgery, I couldn’t achieve my pre-surgical speed. I was constantly sidelined by minor injuries and experienced nagging injuries that left me frustrated and disengaged. After experiencing a modicum of success earlier in my collegiate career, this fall from grace was extremely disheartening. I felt lost, but instead of treating myself with kindness and compassion, I blamed my body.

Just as I’d done countless times before, I began rigidly restricting my calories, only it was harder this time because I was always hungry, and always tired. The first time I’d severely restricted, I ran faster and felt high off the feeling of lightness. This time, I felt even slower, even heavier, a weightiness that was further punctuated by my slower times and the lack of joy I felt in running.

“I’m slower because I’m fatter,” I reasoned. And just as I’d done for as long as I could remember, I made a list that looked something like this:

1. Do not eat anything before morning practice, or in between running and lifting.

2. Do not bring a snack to work

3. Drink a lot of seltzer water

4. Before bed, do at least 50 crunches

5. Cross train on non-workout days for at least 75 minutes

6. Don’t forget to take your iron

7. Try not to consume more than 1200 net calories a day

8. Do not stop until you can fit into the shorts from seventh grade

9. Do not eat any more chocolate or drink any alcohol until the end of the season

10. Take the appetite suppressant twice a day, instead of just once.

If this list seems extreme, it is. I made my first "diet list" when I was in the sixth grade. I had purchased one of those As-Seen-On-TV workout contraptions that essentially amounted to a bungie cord with handles. I followed the pencil-sketch exercises that came with it and completed two sets of all 10 exercises twice a day. I also wrote down items such as: “No more dessert,” and “Run on days we don’t have practice,” and “Figure out how to buy a treadmill.”  

As far as the treadmill goes, I did eventually find one, but it wasn’t until years later. The treadmill was listed on Craigslist for 350 cold, hard, American dollars. A woman who lived about 40 minutes from me was selling it because, “I never use the thing. If you can take it right now, I’ll give it to you for $300.” I was sold. It, was sold. This woman kept the treadmill in her very small, very dark living room, so she could watch the Real Housewives and walk at the same time. However, “It just hasn’t gone as planned,” she told me, shaking her head, “I hope you use it more than I did!”

She helped my mom and I load the clunky, dusty treadmill into the back of my family’s blue GMC pickup truck. I handed over $300 dollars cash, and we left. When my mom and I arrived back home, my dad and brother were eating dinner. I, however, was too excited to eat. I was in what a physiologist once told me is “fight or flight mode.” Adrenaline was pumping. I was on top of the goddamned world, and no one could bring me down. I spent over an hour that night cleaning the treadmill, testing it, and setting it up in our cold, concrete basement. I wanted the treadmill so desperately because I wanted, needed, to be able to run in winter.

If you’ve never been to Wisconsin in January, I don’t recommend visiting. Temperatures often dip below zero, with wind chills making conditions inhospitable at best. The combination of school, basketball practice, and short daylight hours made it impossible to safely run outside on the roads. After purchasing the treadmill, I had a new routine. I woke up at 5:00 a.m. most days and ran 4-6 miles on the treadmill before school. After a full day of classes, I had basketball practice for about two hours. I’d come home from practice, shower, and do homework until I fell asleep. From an outsider’s perspective, this might seem like “dedication” or “discipline.” It is not. I did not rest. I could not rest. I was a slave to running, and I liked it that way.

One of my college coaches used to say, “Hindsight is 20/20,” every time a race went awry or something unexpected happened. In hindsight, my excessive, obsessive exercise regime was extremely disordered and entirely unsafe. It did not bring me joy, nor did it bring me health. What was most insidious about my exercise obsession was that everywhere I looked, my behavior was condoned. Coaches, my family, and my friends did not seem fazed by my behavior, and I often received comments such as, “I wish I had your dedication!” or “I don’t know how you do it all.” That last comment felt particularly damaging: I was barely keeping myself together, and the expectations of others weighed on me heavily.

Sports like running exacerbate this pressure even further. If we are thin enough, we will be fast enough, although for what or whom is never really addressed. Even when I was running my fastest, I wasn't truly happy. Searching for satisfaction through externalities is not only fruitless, but deeply harmful. There is more to life than the numbers our sport measures us by-the times on your watch, your place in a race, the numbers on a scale. There is so, so much more. 


Sarah Rose

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