This is not a before-and-after weight loss story.

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My first EVER gym selfie. Ahh!

Just over a year ago, I had my first sit down with my trainer, Coretta. Through my tears, I told her that I had gained 40 pounds since my mother died, and could no longer recognize myself. Depression and a string of injuries had made it impossible for me to train like I always had; as an elite athlete. Not to mention, years of vacillating between extreme calorie restriction and binging had wreaked havoc on my metabolism. I was constantly in pain, and terrified of losing control of my health and dying far too young, like my mother. As much as it pained me to admit, I needed help.

I was nearing my 30th birthday, and was having so many joint problems that I honestly didn’t know what I could even do in the gym anymore. I knew my body needed activity. I knew that getting stronger would improve my mental and physical well-being. But all of my favorite workouts (basketball, soccer, rugby, spinning, and running) were off the table. I hated the gym and resented working out for any reason other than to improve my performance on the field. No longer being an athlete was (and remains) a sore subject for me, and I was resistant to accept that I would need to find a way to love fitness without playing sports.

As soon as Coretta said the words, “it sounds like it’s time to get back to you,” I knew I was in good hands. I had hope.

In the past, I would have jumped immediately into strict “clean eating,” and exercising 6 days a week. Most of my previous weight loss efforts have involved punishing my body by beating it into shape. Those efforts were driven by an external goal — a number on the scale that I randomly deemed my “ideal.”

This time, I started my training out slowly, doing two days per week: one day in the pool and one day on the floor. At first, I hated the pool. “That’s for old ladies!” I would exclaim, with an air of superiority. I wanted the floor. I wanted to lift heavy! I wanted to get immediately back to being the athlete I once was.

But wants and needs are two different things. “You need the water,” Coretta insisted. “You need to recover and build the foundation for bigger things. You need to walk before you run.”

I was a reluctant grasshopper, but I trusted in her deep knowledge and kind heart so much that I fought my (terrible) instincts and followed her instructions. My inner self-judging perfectionist was screaming at me to do more, to push harder, to kill myself to be thin if I had to. But in my heart, I knew that slow and steady would win.

Over the months, I began to shift my perspective and started viewing working out as self-care; one of the most loving things I could do for myself, rather than a punishment for being too large. I have learned to LOVE going to the gym, and the feeling of strength and balance that it affords me. I have learned that maintaining a love of fitness isn’t about before and afters — it’s about the journey, and celebrating every single little gain along the way. I stopped beating myself up with the “shoulds” and started listening to myself instead. My workouts with Coretta became non-negotiable me-time, rather than just another appointment to keep on my calendar. I’ve slowly added more days at the gym each week, and have even incorporated yoga (an exercise I previously deemed “not intense enough” for me), which has helped me tune in and listen to my body.

What a difference a year makes. Today, Coretta had me running sprints for the first time since I started this quest of getting back to me. I should be able to play sports again quite soon, which I’m really looking forward to. But even if I could never play sports again, I am amazed at how much I have learned and how far I have come. I am now the strongest I have ever been (yes, including when I was a college athlete) and I have never been healthier. My joints feel a thousand times better. My resting heart rate is down a whopping 20 BPM from this time last year. And most importantly: I have stopped trying to disappear.

The funny thing is that I haven’t lost a pound. I have lost inches and body fat percentages and a pants size, but not a single pound. The lack of movement on the scale has been very frustrating and discouraging at times, especially when I’m doing everything “right” and still don’t see the numbers drop. My exasperation is compounded when I see friends posting their incredible before-and-after transformations on social media. But one of the biggest lessons that this whole experience has taught me is to stop looking over my shoulder at everybody else and to look within me. Their success is not my failure. Everyone’s journey is different. Every body has different needs. I am only hurting ME by holding myself to ridiculous standards and comparing myself to others. That is what got me into this mess of abusing myself in the first place!

So today, I choose to compare myself to where I was a year ago, and more importantly, to celebrate how far I have come. As I was stretching after my workout, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and for the first time in years, I saw the “me” that I recognize: tall, broad-shouldered, beautiful and strong.

And I had nothing but love for her.

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