Almost a year ago, I quit exercise. Before you stop reading this, don't get me wrong: I know how important regular movement is for me. But the truth is, exercise and I had a problem.
I started exercising when I was college, and it quickly became an obsession. I loved it. I loved shopping for gym clothes, I couldn't get over the feeling of success I got after completing a 5 a.m. workout while everyone else slept, and I didn't mind the toned look of my body either. I started running short distances and signed up for my first marathon before I had even completed a 5K. I went to every group fitness class at the university gym because exercise was my "thing" now. It was simply part of who I was.
Although fitness had been something I enjoyed, over the years it became a task I had to check off my "to-do" list every day. It became a punishment for a weekend spent eating out one too many times. It became something I had to do, even if that meant showing up late to a birthday party or skipping a social event altogether. I broke up with boyfriends who took time away from running because no relationship was worth sacrificing my precious exercise time.
Then one day last year, while I was training for yet another race and had just finished up mile 8 of my run, I thought to myself, I don’t like this anymore. At first I didn’t think anything of it. This was my mind playing tricks on me, right? But as soon as I finished off mile 9, there it was again: I don’t want to do this anymore.
What kind of life would a life without exercise be? That would go against everything I believed about health. Then, as if there was some kind of physiological response to what I was thinking, my feet started hurting. All those years of pounding on the pavement and hours spent running—my feet had finally started telling me "no."
As much as I hated to give in to that nagging—those judging thoughts that told me I was a quitter—my body didn’t give me much choice. While I tried to push through the injury, I was eventually forced to stop exercising. I couldn’t even walk for 20 minutes without experience excruciating pain.
Here I was, without my crutch—which is what I soon realized exercise was for me now. I couldn’t use exercise as an attempt to subtract calories. I couldn’t use it to avoid feelings. I couldn’t use it as an excuse to keep myself from social activities or break up with a boyfriend. I started to see my relationship with working out for what it really was.
I started asking myself questions, looking for answers. What was I really afraid of? What was I avoiding? Why was this such a scary experience for me? All of a sudden I was smack dab in the middle of a smattering of excessive negative self-talk and limiting beliefs I had no idea even existed. I started to learn more about myself. I was confronted with hidden feelings and forced to challenge them instead of deadlifting them away.
Here are the limiting things I believed about myself that went away when I stopped exercising:
1. I'm socially awkward, so I may as well just exercise.
I used to believe I was socially awkward, so I just exercised instead. In my post-exercise life, instead of canceling plans, I vowed to spend more time with friends. And I’m not socially awkward! OK—maybe I am sometimes, but who cares?
2. If I don't exercise, I'm not good enough for my boyfriend or my friends.
The truth? My boyfriend doesn’t care if I exercise, and he has consistently loved me no matter what my weight is. As for my friends? They didn’t care either. They were still my friends.
3. I suck at eating healthy, so exercise is the only way I can stay at a healthy weight.
I used to think I would gain tons of weight if i didn't exercise. Guess what? I didn’t. If anything, not exercising gave me more time to focus on my nutrition, whereas when I worked out a lot, I was more lax with what I put in my body.
4. Without exercise, I would just be a lazy bum.
This was perhaps the most limiting belief of them all, because once I quit exercise my life became so much richer. I spent more time on my relationships with people instead of avoiding them. I started playing tennis, finished reading books, focused on my work more, and, I found the time to write this.
Quitting exercise has been one of the most thought-provoking growing experiences of my life. It has been painful but necessary. Don’t get me wrong; I am not saying I’ll never exercise again. I will—in time. But right now, exercise just isn’t on my "to-do" list. And that's OK.
To help you make more informed exercise decisions, here's how doctors actually work out, and fight out which machine you're probably neglecting at the gym.