“There’s a New Year’s resolution I think you need to make,” said my husband, James, a resident physician. “I think you should only run four day a week. Only four days of working out each week.”
“Are you just jealous that I can run more than you?” I responded with a wink.
James rolled his eyes. “No way am I jealous of you. You’re a prisoner. I like to run, too ― but I don’t want it to look anything like what you do.”
I had struggled with disordered eating in adolescence, but I worked to have a better relationship with food in adulthood. I did this by developing a list of rules. I won’t skip meals. I won’t count calories. I won’t cut out whole food groups. I made these rules without outside intervention. I did not go to therapy, and I did not see a doctor, and I had not consulted with a dietitian.
I had thought about seeking help, but I convinced myself that my problem was not a real problem. That my disordered eating was something best handled on my own. I was able to temporarily change my behaviors, but I had not addressed the root of my problems.
Exercise, though, was an area of my life I had not worked to moderate. It was, after all, very healthy. How could something so good possibly be bad?
For years, I found myself missing social events to squeeze in more mileage. In college, the only reason I ever skipped class was to fit in extra workouts. Sometimes I ran in thunderstorms or extreme temperatures where I found myself worrying about lightning or heat stroke or frostbite ― but not worried enough to skip my workout.
Since my husband had started his medical residency, I’d been using my time in the evenings to run. He worked many hours as a physician. The evenings were often lonely. Long workouts gave me something to do. They became a kind of companion. I was running 10, 15, sometimes 20 miles a day. I felt guilty giving myself more than one day off each week.
I did not consider myself to be an athlete. I knew that running was my primary means of moderating intense anxiety about my body and my life. Heavy exercise was not just something I did. It was something I had to do.
James pulled a piece of folded paper from a pocket of his scrubs and handed it to me. “This shows the life expectancy of a runner,” he said. “I printed it off at work. People who don’t run have short life expectancies. People who run moderately are more likely to live longer ― but look.” He pointed to a steep drop-off. “People who run excessively die sooner than those who don’t run at all. I think you need to take more days off. This is exhausting to live with.”
“Aren’t you exhausted?”
“Yes,” I admitted.
“Just try it. For a month. You can always go back if something bad happens.”
I had no intention of trying it. Running, for me, was therapy. I could not admit that I needed to go to therapy for my running.
On that New Year’s Eve, though, I happened to run a high fever. As I lay in bed chilling and sweating, my mind raced with my usual preoccupations: How am I going to fit my workout in? Then, suddenly, I thought, Maybe this time, I won’t.
So I made the resolution: four days a week. I would only exercise four days each week. It was the best New Year’s resolution I’d ever made. I no longer nursed chronic injuries, shin splints, weak hips and back pain. For the first time in my life, I felt physically strong.
I leaned heavily on the rule. I only exercised four days a week ― but it was never less. Still, enjoying a social and professional life became less of a puzzle. I was a better partner. It was easier to manage fevers and stomach viruses, long days at work and family emergencies. I was still in bondage ― though I had some recreational time. Aren’t we all, after all, prisoners in our own bodies? I rationalized to myself.
Years later, when I became a mom, I found myself returning to disordered eating and exercise behaviors. This was how I coped with the difficulties of parenthood. These behaviors allowed me to dissociate on the hard days. They also made it difficult to be present for the good days too.
Disordered eating and exercise behaviors were not what I wanted to model for my children. They were not in line with my values. So, I decided to seek help from a therapist.
In an early session, she asked about my behaviors with food and movement.
“Well, for a while, I had a rule that I couldn’t exercise more than four days a week,” I replied. “And even though I’ve been doing more than that lately, I want to go back to that rule: only four days a week. It was really good for me.”
“Have you ever been able to not have rules at all?” she responded after a moment.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Have you ever been able to do whatever you felt like doing? To move and eat intuitively. Have you ever been able to live without a set of rules?”
I started to laugh at the absurdity of the thought. And then I began to cry.
She and I talked about ways to divorce my identity from the numbers that distracted me, miles and minutes and pounds and calories. I understood that when I felt sad or lonely or overwhelmed, overexercising was a way I punished myself for having feelings. She helped me consider additional coping mechanisms. She encouraged me to draw close and open up to those I trusted, rather than run and shrink away in isolation.
When I left my therapist’s office, I drove to work. Then after work, I drove home. It was time for my run. I changed into leggings and a sports bra. As I turned toward the door, I noticed my legs felt heavy and stiff, a familiar sensation, one I’d long ago learned to ignore. Is this my body saying no? I asked myself. Or is this just what being healthy feels like?
I had followed a fixed regimen for so long that, if my body was speaking, I was unsure I still knew her language.
Some who treat compulsive exercise suggest complete cessation from formalized movement. This seems incredibly daunting to me. I find myself brainstorming ways to cheat: choosing more stairs at work, parking far away at the grocery store, pacing while talking on the phone, begging my children to play tag in the backyard.
The idea of less exercise makes me feel itchy. It makes me feel angry and desperate, like I want to throw an object across the room or punch a pillow or a wall. This is called an addiction: an addiction that very few people think is an actual problem.
My husband thinks it’s a problem. He wants to go on a vacation. One where we sleep in and drink coffee in bed, where we eat brunch with pancakes and bacon and fruit, and the rest of the day is ours ― for boating or visiting galleries, attending a play, squeezing in some shopping, but not for an hour or two on the treadmill, and not for a desperate search for a challenging running trail.
He wants to be partnered to someone present, someone who does not need to compensate for pleasure. I want this, too ― for him, for me. I want the counting and chatter to stop long enough to be still, and listen, and know that I am good. I am already good. I don’t have to run away to find what I’m looking for ― it’s already right here.