I have always held a passion for fitness, before even knowing what the term “fitness” was.
P.E. was my favorite subject in grade school. Every chance I had to be outdoors, I took without question. I was the 8-year-old tomboy who you could find rollerblading in the streets and strategizing with my brother and neighborhood kids in an intense game of backyard football. I loved how being active made my body feel, and I loved the escape that sports gave me. The physical accomplishments and recreational outlets positively impacted my ability to stay focused on intellectual tasks and in school. And after dealing with my own struggles in my teens to effectively balance nutritional needs with my enthusiasm for exercise, it made sense that I would choose Exercise Science as my undergraduate major in college. It was a logical decision to immediately pursue a Health and Fitness Specialist (EP) certification upon graduation followed by a nosedive into a professional opportunity in the fitness industry. Everything seemed to be lining up appropriately.
For over three consecutive years I worked as a wellness associate, group exercise instructor and personal trainer, and I have since continued my fitness enthusiast efforts as both a holistic health coach and high school running coach. Within that early time period there was a season when I lived, breathed, and bled everything fitness. I was immersed in the competitively evolving atmosphere and was eagerly soaking in every minute of it. I fully embraced the title of Personal Trainer and spent every ounce of my time reading and researching theories, scientific articles, periodization approaches, and ways to improve myself for my clients. I spent my time devising incentivized wellness challenges and grueling workouts, counting tedious repetitions and tracking results, hopping around the group exercise studio like a bunny rabbit on caffeine, and developing a love-hate relationships with burpees.
I loved promoting fitness as part of a healthy lifestyle, and motivating others through physical activity. But one day this trainer hit burnout. I realized that there are so many more aspects to the wheel that would be forever turning. I recognized that in the world of fitness, there are many lessons to be learned. There will always be something that can be changed, adjusted, or critiqued. Rarely on the fitness planet do we hear the words “good enough.”
In an age where we are constantly being shown how we can better ourselves, fitness is always a hot topic in the “self-improvement” category. But even from someone who favors this idea, I think it is also important to take some time to rest with ourselves rather than wrestle with ourselves.
Fitness will always be a part of my lifestyle, because it’s just such a deep part of who I am. But I have now adopted a contemporary “holistic fitness” mindset… aiming to maintain a balance of a fit mind, body, and spirit. And so, from the reflections of a forever-fitness lover, I invite you to take a rest and read on. Below are five lessons I would like to take with me, and hope to pass along to anyone reading this today.
1. The Comparison Game Has No Winner
Everyone is uniquely and individually different for a reason—you aren’t meant to be exactly like that person you are admiring on social media. Sure, you can have similar results and maybe even similar stories, but even if you do the exact same workouts and eat the exact same things, you will ultimately witness what those changes do for you. One of the most common misconceptions about any fitness program is the idea that what is written in the books or advertised on the internet will work for everyone. While this kind of “cookie-cutter” approach is often misleading, it is important to understand why it does not work. The fact is that each and every person is different with regards to their individual make-up, hormones, genetics, ability to adapt to their environment, personalities, biological elements, etc, their needs and their circumstances. Therefore each person must be treated as a special project, as still highly capable. I was deceived by this trap soooo many times, thinking that my circumstances or training regimen must match up with what is portrayed by the text books or broadcasted by progress pictures. This teasing of inadequacy is very difficult to escape—Facebook and Instagram news feeds are flooded with other people’s prides and accomplishments. Our eyes and minds are filled with unrealistic photo-enhanced expectations often on a daily basis, oftentimes leading to crushed dreams. Constantly seeing how the world is so much farther ahead of where we are currently can make us feel as if we will never be able to keep up. I have learned that the combination of this pressure with the comparison factor really can be a thief of joy. Life is too short to live this way, piled with self-judgment and self-ridicule. So stop beating yourself up! You are you for a purpose, meant to play a role that only you can fulfill. Be happy for those who seem to have reached their goals, but work on finding and achieving your own. Find your “perfect fit.”
2. Thinner Isn’t Always Better
“Strong is the new sexy…”
“From skinny to strong …”
Whatever the tag line reads, the bottom line is that strength should be valued over slim. This lesson is a difficult one, especially for anyone dealing with poor body image or feeling societal pressures to be a certain size or look a certain way. I for one used to be afraid of putting on too much muscle, which stemmed from my own struggles with an eating disorder as a a teenager. Surprisingly enough, my position working in the fitness industry surrounded by heavy barbells, creative competitions, and strong and admirable fitness-goers led me to believe even more in ability over aesthetics. I was inspired by others who cared more about what their bodies were capable of, than what size clothes they wore. It was during this time that I was humbled as an athlete: before I graduated college I could run 26 miles no problem but I couldn’t perform a proper squat. I received compliments on my “tiny” frame, but couldn’t even do a “real” push-up. Once I jumped into the world of personal training, I knew something needed to change. It was a daunting change, but an intriguing one. I knew it would take time, and I knew it would take heart. But I also knew it would strengthen me on the inside as much as the outside. And so began my determination to regain functional strength. Weight training became my new experiment and nutritional exploration became my new hobby. I was fueling for function and nourishing to glow. My desire to be a reliable trainer and a strong empowering woman motivated me to get over my past battles to stay slim. Accountability kicked in, and so did my new eyesight. My perspective changed along with my attitude. Muscles grew, and so did my confidence. Looking back on my early twenties, this was one of the best decisions I had made since college. You are capable of so much more than you realize.
3. There Is Such a Thing As Too Much
More is not always better and harder is not always smarter, just like too much of a good thing can turn into a not-so-good thing. This applies to exercise as well. Sometimes our bodies need a break! As the Sports Recovery Annex would say “You are only as good in your training as in your ability to recover.” (Awesome place to check out if you’re in the Jacksonville area, btw.) If you aren’t recovering from your workouts, there isn’t any sense in doing them. Your bodies adapt by recovering from a progressive load, just as muscles develop by repairing from a tearing stressor. This is how you become stronger. Too much stress causes a tie to break—if you keep pulling your knot tighter and tighter, ignoring the pain or fatigued sensation, you could find yourself strangled in too many injured loops to crawl out of. Pay attention to quality nutrition, fueling timely and enough, hydrating properly and adhering to self-care. One piece of the functional puzzle cannot be neglected. While you may hear the phrase “No one ever regrets a workout,” be prepared to deal with the consequences of pushing too hard for too long, or pushing too hard too soon. Overtraining is a real thing—I’ve seen it happen with my athletes, and I’ve experienced it myself. There is no benefit in pulling from an empty tank. I understand that as a fitness fanatic or avid athlete, stubbornness can often overpower sanity. But most importantly, it is vital to listen to your body. Use your fitness journey to develop a sense of self-awareness that allows you to tune in to your body and recognize its needs. Rest days are ok. Hard days are ok. Easy days are ok. Putting your health at risk to squeeze in a workout is not. When in doubt, “Train smarter not harder.”
4. The 3 P’s: Patience, Persistence, Perseverance
“Practice, practice, practice—for practice makes perfect,” may have been the famous mantra I received time and time again in my adolescent all-star days, but after some serious encounters with reality I have come to believe differently. While practice does lead to progress, sometimes stagnant progress leads to a never-ending cycle of dissatisfaction. While we push our limits and practice to our utmost potential, sometimes we find ourselves in a frustrated position where we are constantly reaching for more and more. This can create a feeling of inadequacy, especially if we have indeed put forth the hours and hours of dedicated hard work. I have found that “progress over perfection” is so much more rewarding. Be patient with yourself, your time, and your commitments. Do make the commitments, but know where and when to extend grace. Unfortunately, quick fixes do not exist. Fitness is a journey, just like life. Goals require steps, and steps are meant to be taken one foot at a time. As much as we may want to, we cannot skip the basics. Reality is, you cannot get stronger without a stable foundation, regardless of your training background. Therefore, you cannot continue to progress without building upon existing platforms. Stability and mobility must precede agility and intensity. Strength must precede power, and with power comes performance. Muscles cannot grow if your stabilizers cannot support the larger mass, and even our greatest strengths can become crippled by our hidden weaknesses. So start slow, and maybe even small. But most of all, start smart. Just don’t get so caught up in becoming the “best,” that you forget to notice your current “being.”
5. You Can Have Your Cake and Eat It Too (Seriously)
You heard me. Have your cake, eat it, and most of all, enjoy it. One “bad” day, nutritional “slip-up,” missed workout, relapse, slow interval, tired run, choppy swim, failed pull-up, fluctuating scale, or weak lift won’t ruin all of your fitness progress (unless you let it). The journey isn’t an “all or nothing” mentality…that kind of thinking is exactly what will lead to an eventual burnout. Holistic fitness is all about developing a long-term trust with yourself. Learn about your anatomy, your psychology, and your physiology. But don’t ignore the main goal of vitality. Don’t punish yourself with workouts or you won’t view movement as a privilege. Don’t restrict your food intake or you will most likely fall into a binge. Don’t guilt-trip yourself for skipping a day at the gym or you will constantly be at war with your own inner expectations. Fitness is a fabulously freeing lifestyle, but only when we work to integrate an interconnected strength with our minds, bodies, and emotions. Challenging ourselves can be invigorating. Recognizing our potential can be empowering. Accomplishing goals can be inspiring. And seeing yourself from a different perspective can be life-changing. So bask in your body’s ability to move, take time to enjoy your favorite foods, notice how you feel in response to your actions, and honor your willpower to savor today. You can change your lifestyle and still embrace who you are. You can embark on a new fitness journey and rediscover your strengths. You can still be disciplined and practice healthy balance. You can have your cake and eat it too. So hike the Appalachian, try a yoga/spin/pilates class, set the record for the world’s longest plank, build that booty, engage that core, swim in open water, complete a 5K, get coached for CrossFit, hit a new 1RM, train for a marathon…whatever you venture to do, go about it wisely. Try something new, get others to help, and just BE YOU.