Would you exercise if it didn't change your body?

This is a question that I once posed to a friend, another woman with ED-like behavior. She was the kind of runner who would run until her bones snapped -- and then keep running (this actually happened to her in a race! -- I'm not kidding). We met in high school, when I was an exchange student in the mining city of Copiapó, Chile, and she was another exchange student in my program. Sara was from Alaska, and just about every sport that I had tried -- running, skiing, swimming, hiking -- she had tried, too, but under more extreme conditions. I felt like a novice when she talked about cross-country skiing to school with a gun strapped to her back in case a bear came by, or when she described the time that she was climbing up a glacier and the person below her hammered her calf with an ice pick, necessitating an emergency evacuation. My stories of canoe camping in the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota paled in comparison to hers. But in one respect we were similar -- in our devotion to running (our obsession, I should say) -- and we soon became running partners. There were few desirable places to run inside Copiapó proper, so we took to running in the mountains surrounding the city, the bare slopes of the Andes that course through the Atacama desert halfway between Chile and Peru.

One day, as we charged up a mountain, I asked Sarah if she would run if it didn't make her fit -- that is, if her body never changed no matter how much she ran. At the time, I was desperately trying to lose the twenty pounds that I had put on since leaving the U.S. (a common occurrence for exchange students, no matter the country), and running seemed like the most direct path to my goal. Sarah hadn't gained any weight, as far as I could see, and I credited her devotion to running (versus my having participated in no exercise, whatsoever, in the first months in Chile) as responsible for her slender figure.

Her response to my question was "I probably wouldn't run just for the view."

With that, I knew that she was also running to stay thin.

Since then, I have asked this question to myself: Would I exercise if I didn't believe that it would change my body in some way? Right now, I am asking myself that question about cycling, as after almost two months of very hard effort on the bike my body seems pretty much the same as it did before. I weigh the same that I did in November, I have the same trouble getting into my favorite jeans, and I still feel guilty when I decide whether or not to have dessert.
Let me make it clear that my intention, upon starting this cycling program, was not to lose weight. I had plenty of other reasons to ride my bike, such as feeling freer and more alive; controlling my stress; meeting new people; getting outdoors; and just plain liking the feel of my body on the bike. But, despite these good reasons, a little voice in the back of my head still says:

"Yes, but wouldn't it have been nice if you had lost some weight, too?"

This is exactly the problem.

Does this little voice bother you, too?

I find myself reading cycling columns about weight-loss and diet during training, trying to see what I'm doing "wrong" here. The other voice in my head, usually the stronger one, says:

"Just keep riding and doing what you like to do. Don't worry about how you look. Worry about how you feel."

Even though this voice is immensely more sensible than the other voice, sometimes the smaller voice is more obvious to me; it's like the way you can always pick out the piccolo in an orchestra, while the tuba tends to blend into the background.

How do you make sure that you hear the tuba instead of the piccolo?


Lisa said...

Piccolos (and sometimes flutes, too) are the most attention-seeking instruments in an orchestra. They always get the melody or the descant, and they always seem to overpower the poor clarinets. The tuba, essential support for the whole ensemble, usually goes unnoticed.

... and with that extended musical metaphor, I will say that yes, the tiny voice gets to me. It's less strident than it used to be, but it's still there.

Also, I'm trying to imagine the landscape you ran through with your friend. It must have been breathtaking.

Ai Lu said...

Ah, Lisa, you must be another music-lover...your understanding of my metaphor is right on!

As for the landscape in Chile, it indeed was marvelous. I found a picture of the Atacama desert on flickr (see above); it approximates the landscape of the region where I lived. Runners World magazine used to have a feature (maybe they still do, but I haven't read it in a while) called "Great Runs" and I always thought that the Atacama Desert could be one of those great running places, too.

Kim said...

Exercise is a tough subject for me. I know myself and it seems that if I were to go for a casual run one day, I would then think, "Hm, I should do this every day." What started as enjoyable would become a burden, another ritual. As it is, I've kept to my daily yoga (by myself, in the morning) and light walking. Even still, I know I don't always do yoga for the "right" reasons. I do it because I think it has some effect on my keeping my body in shape. There, I said it. So, to answer your question, if exercising had no effect on my body at all, I probably wouldn't do it much... I may do yoga once a week, or go for a walk occasionally, but I certainly wouldn't have a routine like I do now. At least I have been able to tell myself that I really hate cardio. I just do. So, I don't do it, despite the calorie-burning potential. That's something :)

littlem said...

Here via the f-word.

One of the things I think is interesting is how we define our terms. I'm a yoga girl also (at least I try to be) and one of the things I notice is that my breathing capacity improves when I'm doing the yoga regularly (also, there are studies) and decreases when I don't (just because I know something's great for me, just that knowledge won't stop me from being lazy sometimes).

But having an improved VO2 max doesn't change my jean size. At least not right away, if ever.

And then there's the whole issue of the camaraderie thing. I have friends who couldn't live without their tennis games (although I'll never be that coordinated).

So maybe the question is whether we'd exercise if the improvements weren't visible? To other people?

Cammy said...

Exercise compulsion is one aspect of my recovery that I am having the hardest time overcoming, but think I can, objectively and honestly say I would exercise even if it didn't change my weight or shape. I didn't fall into overexercise patterns by accident: the entire time I was growing up, I played sports, loved to run around outdoors, and just generally enjoyed exerting myself. I always loved the adrenaline rush, always felt that sense of accomplishment at pushing myself. A huge goal in my current recovery effort is to get back to that stage, where exercise is something that I do for myself, not to myself.

ClpX said...

When this comes up for me, as if often does, I recall this moment:

On a training ride, a girl, Katie, who was probably literally 3x my size and training for an Ironman, beat my ass up a long climb. As in, tore my legs right off. She was likely classified as morbidly obese, and she was "the small one" in her family.

At that point in time, I don't care if cycling makes my body turn GREEN, I want to do it more and get better at it. Clearly Katie didn't let thoughts about her size or weight-loss stop her from riding either. On the bike, it's meaningless.

Kristina said...

Such a great question and such thoughtful responses.
As a former runner, I now DO exercise with a different focus, depending on the day and how I'm feeling. Sometimes it's just a quick stress relief, other times it's to take the dogs out for a walk, and I also see exercise as a time to be social, either with my partner or with friends.
But exercise has definitely evolved to get to this point, and I think age may take a role in this evolution. A colleague who is in her 40's was talking about how she just didn't push herself physically anymore like she used to because her life has changed.
That said, I do understand what you mean about that annoying little voice. Sigh.

ola said...

Hi Ai Lu,

I´ve been a silent reader of your and another recovery and ED related blogs for a while and you´re true inspiration!

((Exercising was always part of me and I used to ennjoy it a lot! I was rowing and orienteering years before I developed anorexia. It was pure joy comparable to playing an musical instrument or completing difficult math exercise. But I also remember that I was always extremely anxious in races and competitions and in these situations I thought I SHOULD HAVE BETTER BODY, but it wasn´t anyhow connected with losing weight or looking thiner.

I believe that I begun losing weight because of panic anxiety of not being fit and good in sports. Paradox is that I completely stopped with all kind of sports as soon as I was diagnosed. And I lost significantly more weight tan before, because sport, my last "motivation" disappeared.
After X months in hospital, sport became motivation again. It worked for me for 2 years - I wasn´t recovered, I was overexercising, but my weight was normal. Sport became bigger obsession than eating and losing weight.
And now I am looking for reasons why my worth is not how fast or though I am.))

What I want to say is that -paradoxically, because I am superanxious- I always haunt competitions and twisting paths.
My ill "theory" is that I can´t simply eat less to maintain (or lose) weight, because it´s so simple. Exercising is kind of challenge.

I know it´s weird, but it´s reality. And I hope one day I´ll run through the forest just for fun, relaxing instead of escaping.

Ai Lu said...

Hi, y'all:

A theme here seems to be getting to a place where we enjoy exercise for its own sake, and not as a means to an end (being thinner). I am working on this, but I honestly still find it difficult as someone whose eating disorder involved a lot of overexercise.

littlem: I like what you say about the improvements being visible to other people. Of course there are plenty of benefits that we get from exercise that are NOT readily apparent to others, such as a decrease in stress, greater ability to focus, camaraderie, joy in the outdoors, etc. These things can't appear on the cover of a magazine, so I think that they tend to get discounted when we think of reasons to exercise.

ClpX: I also appreciate the fact that, in my amateur biking club, there are all kinds of bodies going all sorts of speeds and distances. There is less pressure to be thin in this realm of the sport than I experienced as a runner.

Hi, Ola (In Spanish I would say "Hola, Ola"): I'm glad that you decided to write and respond to my post. I also think that it is interesting how a passion for exercise or sport can be innocent at one time and then turn into something different later, with an eating disorder. At one point I used to think of running as an escape, too. It also struck me as poignant that, in my travels, I was always trying to run somewhere else, running to escape something both literally and figuratively. So running holds a lot of meaning for me, in that regard. I am hoping that biking can have a different meaning for me as a sport.

Kristina: Sometimes I look forward and wonder what my relationship with my body will be like when I'm forty, or fifty, or even eighty years old. No doubt the concerns will be different, and it's good to remind myself of that sometimes.

Kim and Cammy: I appreciate your honesty. Recovery doesn't have to be perfect to be a change.

Colby said...

Thanks so much for your post, and your blog. Millions of Americans are suffering from eating disorders. Silver Hill Hospital has clinicians trained in evaluation, diagnosis and adult and adolescent psychiatric treatment and provides hope for people who may not have been getting the right care. Talking/blogging about mental illness can be extremely helpful not just for yourself, but for others in need. Keep up the good work.