The Single, Most Transformative Thing That Cured My Insomnia And Helped My Anxiety
Like many of us, I've gone through cycles of working out. When I was an image-obsessed college student, I'd do thirty minutes on the elliptical while flipping through the latest issue of People Magazine before sneaking a cigarette on my walk home (I know, it was terrible: this is a full-disclosure article). The sole purpose of the cigarette and the sweat session was to lose weight, to get some version of the bodies I saw in People. And it worked—until this party or that vacation or this stretch of a heavy class workload made me fall off the wagon and into a pint of Ben & Jerry's. It hardly mattered though—fat or thin, whether I was screaming at myself to run harder, sweat longer, or berating myself for too much cookie dough, I hated myself, and I hated my body.
Food was my gateway to the health world.
In my early twenties, I started to drop the cigarettes and add in more green smoothies. I also completely stopped going to the gym. Still on the quest for the perfect body, I would quote studies to my gym-bound friends: "80% of your weight is due to what you eat," I'd say, smugly sipping my smoothie, "you hardly make a difference with all your crazy workouts."
As I became more immersed in the health world, I began to occasionally do yoga (mostly at home; usually for thirty minutes, tops). I saw the sessions as insurance, like my resveratrol supplements and turmeric tonics, against getting sick at some amorphous later date in my life. I'd die later, or be that less likely to get cancer, I told myself, and these promises, while appealing, were so intangible that they made it hard to have any motivation. And—as anyone who has ever exercised knows—working out is hard. There's a lot of self-talk involved in convincing yourself that you'd rather be contorting your body into strange positions, huffing and puffing, than watching the latest episode of Girls. Eating well is easier. You have to eat to live, and replacing my unhealthy foods with healthier versions—well, that required very little energy. I could swap almond butter cookies for normal cookies and still have plenty of time to settle in on my couch for Lena Dunham's latest adventures.
And so it went, for several years, my lazy-girl brand of wellness mostly working for me.
I never felt the wondrous benefits that the wellness world purported to offer, but I was also never that unhealthy to begin with. I suffered from anxiety, yes, and sometimes insomnia, but I'd made my peace with the impact they had on my life: the constant stomach aches, and missed social opportunities. I never considered fitness as a possible solution. In this time, I also made peace with my body, beginning to appreciate what it did for me, rather than what it looked like (and losing, in the process, my last little bit of motivation to work out).
So, when mbg's fitness editor challenged me to work-out for thirty days straight, I confess that I scoffed at her a bit. I wasn't sure I could do it—but I also wasn't sure what the point was. I asked several of the other (very active) editors why they worked out, and their reasons surprised me. "Our bodies are meant to move," said Lindsay, the wellness editor (and office sage). "It's the best moment of my day, when after sitting still, I give my body what it's been asking for. "It helps me sleep," said Leigh, our fitness editor. "I can definitely tell a difference on days I don't do it."
At the word sleep, my ears perked up. It hadn't occurred to me that exercise could have immediate benefits, beyond six-pack abs and a high, toned butt, and all of the other bullshit trumpeted by the magazine industry. Nervously, I agreed to try it for thirty days.
I started off by getting some workout clothes, since all I had at my house were old sweatpants that literally fell down when I tried to go for a run (the construction people across the street appreciated this moment; my shame, less so). While mbg is a very athleisure friendly office, I'd always stuck with a wardrobe of black jeans and t-shirts, but the moment I slipped into my first pair of leggings (an oh-so-trendy pair from Outdoor Voices) and a millennial pink Reebok sports bra, I kind of got it. Refraining from singing a version of Maria's song from Westside Story ("I feel sporty, oh so sporty"), I instantly felt stronger, and more energetic, like one of those women who casually says, "I'm going for a run today." "This is great!" I told Leigh. "I'm going to kill this challenge." "Right," said Leigh, "now you actually have to workout."
My first workout was a yoga class at Sky Ting, the buzzy NYC studio, during a particularly bad bout of insomnia.
I was nervous going in—would I be too tired to last the full hour?—but the class was, in a word, transformative. It was exhausting (I had to take child's pose regularly to take a break) but my body and, more importantly, my mind, were spent. I let go of my perpetual narrative because I was too tired to think. That night, for the first time in years, I slept soundly, without waking even once.
I tried a number of workouts over my month, from boxing to running to rebounding to yoga. I found the simple combination of yoga at a studio a few days a week and running worked best, and was easiest to stick to. I was careful to be gentle with myself, mixing a minute of running with a minute of walking, taking child's pose when I needed to, but as the month wore on, I felt myself getting stronger, and actually enjoying the feeling of pushing myself to my physical limit.
It's been eight weeks now since the initial challenge, and, while I don't workout daily, I do yoga or run five or six days every week.
My anxiety has decreased and my insomnia has lessened noticeably. Framing my workouts to be about the immediate benefits make them something I crave, something I'm excited to do daily (and something I'm sad on days I have to miss, which I never thought I'd say). Much to the chagrin of 20-year-old me, I don't really look all that different (there is, maybe, a hint of bicep where there was once none), but the difference I feel is extraordinary. And that's better motivation than any bikini body could ever be.