What Happens if You Can’t Exercise?

Editor’s Note: This article speaks about the fear of gaining weight and its relationship with food.
How do you feel about food and your body? Do you unconditionally love and accept yourself? Are you at peace with your relationship with food? And would you feel the same if you could no longer run; no longer walk?

A couple of weeks ago I would have answered unequivocally, absolutely yes!

Then I got hurt.

And what I confronted broke me down, quickly and completely.

In spring, I took a minor fall, overstretching my leg and hip. It was no big deal, I thought. I took a day off and got back to my easy runs and walks the following day, careful to be attentive to that hip. It never felt “normal,” but it didn’t feel terrible either. Besides, runners are used to running through soreness, running to recover, and staying active in between those runs.

Then, three weeks later, the day after a long run, I could hardly walk. I felt a real nasty pain–a stabby pain–in my hip. I conceded to taking a week off … of running. I kept doing light cross-training and walking–a lot. My hip slowly improved, but after a full week, it was still hurting, even on a walk. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t the same as my other hip. Why isn’t it better??? I wondered with frustration. I took a week off! But did I really take a week off? I negotiated with my body, and my body did not agree to my terms. I wasn’t really listening. Because I was terrified of the alternative. Terrified to not exercise at all.

After a week, I decided I should take at least a few days off completely. No walking, no cross-training. My immediate response to this idea was fear. How long will it take for me to lose fitness? Is this going to impact my upcoming marathon training? How will I know how much to eat if I don’t exercise? Does this mean no ice cream? I’ll just not eat very much, I thought, meal planning in my head. If I don’t do anything tomorrow, I’ll eat oatmeal, apples, lettuce… With a start, I asked myself, What are you doing??? Why are you planning on controlling and restricting food in order to take a day off? What’s going on here? What are you afraid of?

I’m afraid of losing fitness, of not being able to even jog. But there’s a more insidious and embarrassing and insulting underlying fear that haunted me for decades: the fear of gaining weight. As a body-positive, radical self-acceptance, happiness advocate, I was and am so embarrassed by that realization. I thought I had overcome that fear, those ideas, years ago. I thought I had healed my contentious relationship with my body and food. But here it was, waiting for an opening to infect my thoughts and behavior; ripping away my recovery, empowerment, and growth; uncovering the sleeping “fat kid” I thought I had healed, integrated, and accepted. Why am I afraid of gaining weight? Even as I write this, I fight back tears, knowing it’s because … I’m afraid I won’t love and accept myself that way. And just like that, it feels as if nothing’s changed at all since that troubled past.

But this is just a reaction, a knee-jerk response, a habitual story I told myself for so long that it never completely disappeared. So much has changed. I often tell my daughter that growth and learning aren’t linear; it’s a roller coaster, a lumpy bumpy journey full of switchbacks and falls. So here I find myself, in spitting distance of childhood trauma, with all the experience of my adulthood to help me process it.

Increasingly over the last decade, exercise has been the primary tool in my recovery and healing toolbox, particularly in response to the chaos in the greater world over the past two years. I don’t view it as an attempt to run away from problems and trauma. I see it as medicine I take almost every day to treat a number of conditions. It relieves anxiety, frustration, and sadness. It calms and invigorates. It helps me put things in perspective: being outside and seeing nature exist without any interest in or intervention from me is a reminder that my problems are kind of insignificant, and so am I. It helps me love my body to appreciate its performance and ability to give me these gifts of time outside. It teaches me not to abuse my body through “junk food” binges–because that never sits well in your stomach on the run–but to relish all manner of foods as part of a fully-enjoyed, healthy, life.

Stripped of this coping mechanism, treatment, medicine, and maybe even crutch, I am faced with the uncomfortable truth that I don’t even know what to do. Without one of the central traits of my identity, what do I even do now??? What can I do to heal and treat all the things that running and hiking remedy?

This learning opportunity is not lost on me. I am grateful for the reminder to reexamine my identity and my relentless and singular focus on one type of activity. As a woman navigating middle age, I need to diversify my activities to promote longevity in running and hiking. As a soon-to-be life coach and counselor, I am going to have clients that don’t have easy access to the outdoors; that are struggling to heal their relationship with their bodies and food and can’t treat it with exercise or outside time. Clients who cannot or do not want to exercise at this time in their lives. Clients who are even addicted to exercise and need to heal that relationship. How will we treat our things

In my recovery, I am finding joy in the small spaces of my everyday existence. I am mindful periodically throughout the day: journaling, spending quality time with a puzzle or project, quietly breathing with my eyes closed while I stretch, having a cup of tea. I am taking explicit and exquisite pleasure in the very smallest moments of beauty: birds by the window, my dog’s calming breathing as she lays or next to me, the ephemeral colors of dawn and dusk. I am talking to my body and listening for responses–How does this feel? What would you like to eat? Was that enough? I’m assigning no judgments of “good” or “bad” to food, “worthwhile” or “worthless” to activities.

I’m not a believer in fate or destiny, or that “everything happens for a reason” outside of cause-and-effect; but I’m a fervent believer in making meaning and opportunity out of challenges. I have (however unwillingly) been given the opportunity to confront the pitfalls in my personal journey and strengthen my self-acceptance more completely and unequivocally than ever before. I have the choice to learn from this and all experiences and make them meaningful, purposeful, and significant. And if I do that, then I’ve lost nothing and gained everything.

Carrie Fishman

Carrie Fishman

Carrie Fishman is currently transitioning from high school English teacher to life coach and therapist. A two-time marathoner, she has been running and hiking among the redwoods of the Northern California coast for over a decade. Also a performer, she can occasionally be found on stage with her community theater; often alongside her daughter. Connect with Carrie through instagram: @carrie.runsfortbragg, or facebook: facebook.com/runfortbragg

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Comments

5 thoughts on “What Happens if You Can’t Exercise?”

  1. So very timely & relevant, thank you! As I sit on my bed, contemplating a long recovery from a work-related injury that has rendered me unable to even use my dominant hand/arm, I find myself struggling with these very thoughts. Just when we think we have evolved & overcome, sometimes we realize there’s more to learn. 😉

    Reply
  2. I loved this article and shared it in a FB group I lead for women in mid-life. I felt I could have written it myself, as it described my journey with weight and self-acceptance to a T. Thank you!

    Reply
  3. Beautifully and thoughtfully written. I’m reading this at my desk while I await MRI results for what I think could be a tibial stress fracture. I ran almost every day during the pandemic, because it’s been one of the only things I can turn to for processing my emotions and my stress. Now that I’m taking a break, I don’t know what to do with myself. I have this tension with food and the fear of gaining weight (which I think actually may have contributed to my injury in the first place – I know I’ve been underfueling for a while now.) I’m using this time off to examine my feelings about my body and food, and to find other outlets for my stress so that my entire identity isn’t enveloped in how many miles I log every week.

    Your words stick with me – “learning and growth are not linear.”

    Thanks for sharing this.

    Reply
  4. You put into words everything I’m thinking and feeling right now! I’ve been dealing with some kind of ankle injury since April. While I can still run, I can’t run as many miles as I’m used to, they’re slower and sometimes painful, and if I’m being honest, I probably need to cut back even more to help my ankle heal.

    But I fear the unknown of taking a week, or even day, completely off from any exercise. On days I don’t run, I still go for a 4-5 mile walk or hike, and do at-home cardio and strength workouts. I can’t remember the last time I took a full rest day — no exercise at all — and frankly, the idea of one scares me. How will I fuel myself if I can’t exercise?

    I struggled with an eating disorder in my teens and early 20s, and found running as a way to cope. I’m better at nourishing myself now, but only because I exercise. I don’t know how I would cope if I didn’t have running or workouts in my life. But I’m learning that I can’t make running or even hiking my identity, because if that’s taken away from me, I’ll have nothing left.

    Thank you so much for your honesty because I think it’s inspiring others to be open about their struggles with this as well!

    Reply
  5. After falling again at a 50k, and this time breaking my knee cap I was done running. The injuries and the time it was taking mentally was more than I could deal with. It was no longer a place for mental peace and healing.

    I love the decision I made, I now have time to do the activates that made me happy before I ran. Sewing, gardening, reading books. I grow food for a food bank and feed people. I could not do that if I was running to train for a 50k or 50 miler. I’m a slow runner and being slow meant I was running in training for a long time.

    I gained wait, went on starvation diets, up and down, up and down my weight went. Society has this terrible word, “fat” and I was trained to be afraid of it. Through months of work is when I realize that I was not the problem, the problem are people who like to judge. They believe the “fat” word has power to hold over me.

    Yeah I’m probably 30 pounds over what medicine thinks I should weigh. I can do all the activities I want to do without any problems. I am happy for the first time in 60 years that I am not judging myself and I don’t give a dam what someone else thinks. They are the one with the “fat” problem not me.

    Reply

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