On Weight Loss and Taking a Gym Hiatus

Today’s blog post is going to be a bit more personal, but it’s one that I wanted to share.

I don’t know exactly when I first started noticing that something was off, but I had been experiencing issues with my breathing for some time. I’m not sure if it was the extremely arid Arizona climate, the altitude, the strenuous uphill trajectory, or just the abrupt temperature shift, but whatever the reason, I experienced my first true asthma attack while climbing Camelback Mountain.

Once we were back on the East Coast, I made an appointment with my GP, who diagnosed me with asthma, and prescribed me a daily inhaler. It was a straightforward process, though the first medications I took were not right for me. I ended up dealing with serious breathing problems for a few weeks. Due to my inability to breathe comfortably while even walking to work, I was forced to take a break from the gym. This month and a half long hiatus from the gym proved to be a challenging and emotionally fraught period of my life, and it is one that I would like to talk about today.

As many of you know, I have been on a weight loss and fitness journey over the past few years. In the winter of 2016, I weighed 190 pounds and was in an extremely dark place. I was suffering from undiagnosed Lyme Disease, which not only affected my physical health and caused weight gain, but also had a serious impact on my mental health.

Once I finally had a diagnosis and underwent treatment, I began turning things around. I started eating better and working out at least five days a week, and discovered a love for weightlifting. My gym-time became my me-time. I learned many incredible things about health, my body, and fitness in general in this time. I discovered a passion for nutrition and health that I had never known before.

But while I gained so much joy and fulfillment out of actually working out and feeling better, I felt an almost equal amount of satisfaction in knowing that I was doing the “right thing.” I was succeeding at the task that so many people set out to conquer, and I was doing what doctors, magazines, television, and and internet fitness gurus all tell you is correct. We live in a culture inundated with health and wellness advice, where the ideal woman now has washboard, carved abdominals, and the glutes of an olympic powerlifter. Instagram is flooded with girls decked out in GymShark, twisting their bodies to brink of lower back spasm to show off their bulging muscles in exactly the right position. I received messages and well-wishes from people who I had never spoken to in my life, who were proud of me and wanted to know how I had done it. And it felt amazing. It felt so good that I didn’t realize how much I had started to internalize, or how much I had started to define myself by my time spent lifting barbells or running intervals.

Let me just say first, that none of that support and encouragement to take care of your health is a bad thing. It all comes from a place of love and concern, and appreciation for how absolutely, unbelievably hard the weight loss struggle can be. We have a nation-wide problem with food addiction and we often live highly sedentary lives, which has led to an obesity epidemic that doesn’t show any signs of abating. We should absolutely encourage healthy eating and physical activity, and support those who take the steps to do so. But we also have to be so careful with the way we express (and internalize) that encouragement and support. We have to be careful not to push too hard, and risk hurting where we have aimed to help.

When I realized that I had to take some time off from the gym, I was devastated, far beyond the level of emotion that I ought to have felt. Rather than viewing my hiatus as one more way to take care of my body and my health, it felt like a punishment. I was furious with my body for failing me–I saw time off as weakness and laziness. When I expressed to a few acquaintances that I was taking time off, they all unanimously suggested a multitude of other ways to continue work out aside from the gym. I should at least do yoga, or at least do something low impact, like plyometrics. The concept of rest in and of itself being a part of self-care and overall fitness is something that we’ve lost sight of in many ways.

Yes, exercise is important. Yes, it is good to move your body and eat food that nourishes it. But as harmful as abstaining from exercise and overeating can be, going too far in the other direction can be just as bad. The end result of your fitness journey should always be your own health, not only in body, but in mind as well. If your efforts to improve your physical health start to infringe upon your mental wellbeing, maybe it’s time to reassess your approach. Taking time off for health reasons or even just ensuring that you take the adequate time to recover after each workout is just as important as getting into the gym in the first place.

Last week I was finally able to return to my weekly workout routine, and I couldn’t be happier about it. But this time I am returning without the pressure. My own value is not correlated to the number of minutes I spend with a dumbbell in my hand, and neither is yours.