Why I Work Out Less — & Am Healthier Than Ever

Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
There was a time when I would have gone on a five-mile run and berated myself for slacking off. The minimum mileage for it to feel worth it would have had to be at least eight to 12 if I wanted to really feel good.

Back then, when I lived in NYC, I maintained a strict sweat schedule: 45+ miles a week of running and at least three days a week of weights and stretching. Oh, and I walked to and from work — a four-mile total trek per day. On weekends, I challenged myself to walk even more. Consider that this was the time before Fitbit could triumphantly tell me how many steps I logged that day. I’m afraid of what I would have done with that information.

Clearly, looking back, life was lacking, well, fun. And most other things, really. I felt isolated in the city where I was trying to jump-start my career. I missed home — Chicago — dearly. So I tried to fill up my time by being healthy and active. Because that’s always good, right? I wasn’t getting wasted, smoking weed, or having regrettable sex. I was going to the gym!

Let me tell you that when you’re running around Central Park on mile 13 at 6 a.m. on a Saturday, you can’t focus on the Should I be here? and What am I doing with my life? and Will I ever meet someone? that would otherwise be running through your mind — all you feel is your quads burning. And then, later, you’re too tired to do anything.

You’d think that since I let fitness be my escape, I was super-healthy. And I’m sure my slim, muscular body looked the part. But my sunken eyes and exhausted sadness hinted at the truth: Mentally, I couldn’t have been less healthy. I was a bundle of misery. Partly because of my laser focus on the scale, which not only revealed my weight but my body-fat percentage, too. It’s probably not a surprise that I hopped on every morning hoping to love my stats, but always felt ashamed, never satisfied — no matter what it said. Every day I went through the motions, meeting my “exercise quota,” flopping into bed, and then starting it all again the next day.

At the end of that summer — at the height of my exercise obsession — I moved back to my hometown in the Chicago area with, gulp, my parents. I was 24. The change of scenery was what I needed. I felt more comfortable back home, and with that, became less reliant on exercise for happiness. I started easing back on the workouts. Slowly at first. Twelve-mile runs became eight-mile runs became five-mile runs. I reconnected with old friends. I met my boyfriend, who would become my husband. I launched a freelance-writing career that perfectly suited me. I started to travel. I moved into my own place in the city.

With each of these mini successes, exercise became less of a stranglehold and more something I did because it made me feel good. I started to run for the joy of it. To train for a marathon as a challenge, not because I felt like if I didn’t, I’d somehow become a flabby, unfit mess. To go to the gym because I’d always leave feeling strong and kickass, not because I’d feel ashamed if I didn’t.
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I look the same, but my mindset couldn’t have undergone a more dramatic makeover.

Nowadays, I’ve found my happy exercise place — and it’s far less than I’ve ever worked out before. I don’t even belong to a gym anymore, and don’t plan on joining anytime soon. I try new workouts to see what’s out there, but that’s it. I run twice a week, four miles a pop. Three days a week, I do a 20-minute workout with a medicine ball in my living room while catching up on whatever’s on Bravo. (Taking short breaks is therefore necessary.) I still walk, but that’s because I have a dog and she needs it. The fresh air and daily break help put me into a less crazy headspace, too.
And you know what? I feel amazing. I think I’m just as strong and fit as I was before — and not that it matters, but I still wear the same size — but the difference is in my confidence and happiness. I look the same, but my mindset couldn’t have undergone a more dramatic makeover.

In an era when we’re told that we have to kick our own asses while working out (think: spin trainers who specialize in shouting at you, hardcore workouts like CrossFit, mud runs where people have actually died), it’s a relief to know that I don’t.

Don't get me wrong: Being fit is still a huge part of my life. (I am a health and fitness writer, after all.) Staying active will always be a priority for me. Last year, I got pregnant with my son and still stuck to my exercise routine because I knew it would help me have a safer, more comfortable pregnancy and a healthier baby. And I’m still at it — not to lose the baby weight, but because my energy and mood nosedive if I don’t.

And therein lies the Einstein moment: This is what works for me. And it may be different from what works for you. If you thrive on daily runs, training for a triathlon, or showing up for barre six days a week, more power to you. But I can’t do stuff like that anymore. It topples into obsession way too fast, and now that I know I don’t have to do those things, I never want to go back to that. While I never sought therapy for what was going on, I probably should have. An unhealthy obsession with exercise can signal an eating disorder, and I know my actions and mindset were smack-dab in that territory. (If this sounds like you, too, you can learn more about it through the National Eating Disorders Association.)

What matters to me is that now, I’m — finally — using exercise for the right reason: to feel effing amazing.

It's your body. It's your summer. Enjoy them both. Check out more #TakeBackTheBeach here.

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