My Personal Challenge: No Gym for One Year
Over the last year I have been engaged in a personal experiment and challenge: to stop working out in a gym for one year, while simultaneously eating what I love (aka NOT dieting), and eat those foods when I want to. My little self-imposed test has led to many surprising results …
It is important for me to state that my personal relationship with “the gym” has been consistently strong since college (that’s 25 years, now). Going to the gym is something I genuinely love doing. And I don’t mean a “spa” gym, necessarily (although those are lovely, too). I mean a “gym” gym — where real people with real bodies exist and breathe. There was a time in my life when going to the gym was my central way to manage feelings and stress. During those days, I was not “conscious” of why I was going to the gym — I just went.
Specifically, for me, my “no gym” challenge meant giving up the weight training, a little light jog on the treadmill and the stretching work in the “ab room” in an effort to explore new ways of coping with stress. It is this routine that I was forcing myself to look at … and let go of … for one year. Clearly, I know myself and my body very well, so this is not necessarily a healthy idea for everyone to try. It wasn’t that I wasn’t allowing myself to engage in ANY exercise, it was that I needed to re-visit my concept of the gym as my primary source of stress-release and exercise.
As part of my challenge, I ALSO discouraged myself from engaging in any “high impact” forms of exercise (I used to be a runner and a person that loved to “push” in a rigorous hot yoga or flow class, so I didn’t want to immediately jump into another form of high impact exercise in order to replace the “gym”). I learned from my acupuncturist that the Chinese believe that it is not necessarily healthy to push ones self to the point of sweating profusely. So, I limited my “replacement” exercise options to calming yoga practices, walking or more “soothing” forms of exercise. This goes entirely against my nature, so it was quite an added experiment.
I suppose another way to word this challenge is that I was embracing “yielding” inside of myself. The opposite side (the “push” side) wanted me to run, to do high intensity exercise, sit ups, to go to the gym, etc. I was trying to “listen” to the “yield” in order to learn more about myself. I knew that I would need to practice “yielding” in order to fully embrace this challenge.
Why did I create the challenge?
I have worked in and around so many individuals in recovery for the last six years, that I created the challenge for three primary reasons:
- First, I wanted to “give up” something that relates to my body in honor and support of those I know and love (I have 7 friends and loved ones in various kinds of recovery for addictions and eating disorders). They don’t know I did this, I just did it. I also teach yoga and mindfulness to individuals in recovery, so I entertained this challenge so I could become a better teacher, and practice what I preach.
- Second — I was curious how I’d react. I’m the kind of person who feels guilty if I don’t get to the gym, so I really wanted to explore that about myself. How can a “gym” have mental power over me? Over the last 10 years I have evolved a much healthier relationship with food, with exercise and with loving myself unconditionally, but the one “last” part of myself that I was clinging to was my persona of a woman-with-a-well-toned gym body. As someone who has loved to be involved in any kind of physical activity since childhood, I was really curious to see how fast my body would change if I didn’t work out regularly in the gym (or if it would change at all), how much exercise I actually needed to engage in each day to feel balanced or healthy, and what my body’s natural “balanced” state might look like or feel like. Having literally been in a gym consistently for 25 years, I was curious.
- Lastly, as an introspective gal, I like to find ways to listen to deeper “truths” within myself. I know that not being able to go to the gym each morning meant I would learn new insights to my truths and come up with new ways to manage stress. Or implode. Ha ha … I wanted to check in with those truths, and keep listening.
As of March 1, 2012, it will have been exactly one year since I started this challenge. While I can’t say that I made it the entire year without ONCE stepping into the gym, or engaging in high impact exercise, I did remarkably well.
The first surprising “result” is that it doesn’t feel like a challenge any longer. At first it was almost impossible not to focus on the physical “results” of “not going to the gym for a week”, “not going to the gym for two weeks” and I heard my brain start to count, to obsess, to entertain fear. I hadn’t ever experienced this before, so it was really interesting to discover this truth about myself. For some reason, not working out equaled “fear” in my brain.
I started replacing the gym routine with walking … by myself, with my dog, with my significant other.
The other part of the challenge was that I had to continue eating “normally” for myself. I wasn’t going to alter diet just because the exercise part of my life was shifting. This was a particular challenge because I love to eat an array of foods. I love meats, sausages, sweets, veggies, pastas — I LOVE to cook. So each time I heard a little whispering to “cut back on food” because I was modifying my exercise habits … I listened to the truths that were underneath. I journaled. I wrote. I walked. I listened. I talked a lot with my significant other about the experience. And I am proud to say I never altered my eating patterns. My significant other and I were able to eat our delicious meals with wine and dessert as often as we normally do. For us, food and meals are about nourishment, enjoying life, sampling flavors, sharing a dinner by candlelight. I have to say that the “food” aspect of my challenge probably taught me the most about my strength, inner beauty and wisdom. More than I had known.
For the first three months or so, I marveled that my body changed little, if at all. I ate what I wanted, when I wanted, and I had no noticeable differences in my body. This was actually a really cool thing to learn. I don’t have to “push” myself at the gym or in my workout in order to maintain balance!
In addition, during the weeks where I did notice a change in my body, I would ask myself “what is out of balance” — and rather than answering “I’m not going to the gym” — I would answer something like “I’m working to hard this week and didn’t take time for my walk today” or “I am not employing self-care” — this was a way that I could really check in with myself during the challenge.
Another really powerful “result” of this experiment was that I noticed how much I had been relying on going to the gym as a measure of my own sense of achievement. It is so normalized in our culture to give ourselves a pat on the back for “going to the gym today” — but then the opposite is also true “I’m a loser since I didn’t get to the gym today.” At the beginning I definitely noticed this within myself. Clearly, we are great people whether or not we make it to the gym.
The part of the challenge that was surprisingly refreshing to learn, was that I could do a walk or gentle stretching or yoga exercise for only 20 minutes a few times per week and my body felt okay. Rather than a rigorous workout, I could do 20 minutes of gentle stretching and yoga, or a little walking and feel like I was in balance. This was a huge lesson for me.
Yet another huge lesson for me: I ate meats, pastas, sauces, desserts and had wine when I wanted and kept my body in “balance” by listening to my needs, stretching or doing a little gentle exercise when I needed to — and (for the record) my medical test results were better than ever. An important note, here: I have lived with and I work with biochemists, nutritionists and registered dieticians. I would say that I probably know more than the average person about nutrition, mindful eating and about cooking fabulous meals. I really have no “rules” about food, but there are some things I always do: I always cook with olive oil. I always have an array of “colors” of food on the table, I always try to eat every 2-3 hours (although that doesn’t always work), and I always eat the foods I crave. Additionally, when I say “I ate what I wanted” I mean that I eat in the way I have always eaten …. but I’m the kind of person who LOVEs sauteed greens with dried cherries. I ADORE stir-fried vegetables… and I ALWAYS, ALWAYS have one delicious square of dark chocolate each night.
Right or wrong … those are my attitudes toward food. And thankfully, they did not change last year. In fact, the challenge taught me to be even more mindful, self-loving and tuned in to the way I might use food to cope with stress.
Part of my challenge was to see if my body would actually find its own new state of physical “balance.” I did know that weight gain might be a side-effect of my challenge, but I was kind of excited about it. Toward the end of last year, I gained one “size”. I’m still figuring out how I feel about this — it certainly feels “different.” I interpret the weight gain to mean that I was probably at a size that was too small for my natural “balanced” state… or that the state my body actually finds itself in the greatest place of wholeness is a size that is easier to maintain.
I still feel wise. I still feel creative. I still feel employable. And in many ways I feel more beautiful and like I actually have a body now.
These were tremendously important results for me to experience.
I used to go to the gym, tune out, listen to my headphones and “escape.” Sometimes I’d be so angry while working out I could cry or RUN as fast as I could on the treadmill to release. Internally and externally — I was running. Over the last several years, going to the gym was more about a regular routine that provided me with an in-shape figure and a feeling of “strength” — but I wanted to test that strength at the core level.
I will go back to the gym this year, but now for completely different reasons. I have learned through this challenge that I absolutely love how I feel when I’m moving my body through space. Whether I’m walking outside, doing a few easy stretches or whether I’m at the gym — I have learned the benefits of regularly strengthening all of the muscles that surround the spine. Surprisingly, what I missed most about working out at the gym was the feeling my spine had after a workout — as if it were held together a little longer, a little more strongly and with more stability. I want my lower back to last a lifetime!
I missed the gym for different reasons. At the beginning, the gym was a “crutch” that I was holding onto. Today I miss the gym because I know it has machines that will hold my back together.
I never thought that the reasons WHY I wanted to go to the gym would change so greatly after embarking on this challenge. If I get to go to the gym, now, I do it because it feels like a way to celebrate me, my body and my life. It isn’t a punishment or a jail sentence.
I can certainly relate to life differently now that my self-imposed challenge is over. In many ways I feel my life is more balanced, more free and more aware as a result of all I have learned. If I choose to go to the gym, I’m going there because I want to be there — I want to celebrate myself, not punish myself. And if I choose not go, I’m certainly not afraid to miss a day (or a year) at the gym!
Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Robyn Hussa, MFA, E-RYT, is Founder and CEO of NORMAL, for which she was awarded the 2010 Champion in Women’s Health award from Ms. Sue Ann Thompson and the Wisconsin Women’s Health Foundation. Ms. Hussa is also a professional performer and New York producer. She is the co-Founder of the Drama Desk and Obie award-winning Off-Broadway theatre company, Transport Group, for which she won the 2007 Drama Desk award for the company’s breadth of vision and presentation of challenging productions. She is the Editor of the WeAreTheRealDeal blog site and author of Healthy Selfitude — a result of Hussa’s in-depth training in the performing arts, voice, movement, and yoga. She holds a Master’s in Fine Arts and is an E-RYT yoga instructor with the Yoga Alliance.