When I was done playing basketball as a freshman in college, I felt lost. I had been a baller for a decade—more than half of my life at that point—and I wasn’t sure who I was without the sport. My friends had been my teammates. My schedule had been dictated by practices and games. Everything up to that point had been wrapped up in basketball: including my body image, and my relationship to food and fitness.
For a year, I spiraled into a ping-pong of weight loss and gain. I wasn’t conditioning four plus hours a day anymore, yet I still ate as if I was, going in for seconds and thirds at the cafeteria buffet line. The Freshman 15 quickly turned into the Freshman 30, and I found myself at the thrift stores, shopping for larger pants. Watching whatever muscle I had from basketball turn to, well, softer material, I felt deeply ashamed.
So I decided to get thin. I tore out a couple of pictures from a Victoria’s Secret catalogue as motivation, and I started a “eat very little except for one day a week” diet thingy. It was a strategy I picked up from a friend I made second semester, freshman year. (We had a falling out later that spring. Tragically, she died from anorexia a few years ago.)
The numbers on the scale would dwindle, sometimes by 10 or 15 pounds in a couple of weeks. I returned to the thrift stores, this time in search for pants four sizes smaller than the ones I had bought a couple months earlier. There was a serious disconnect between my body and my mind: my body was begging for equilibrium, and I was stuffing an entire cake in my mouth one day, nibbling at celery the next.
Sophomore year, a few vital things happened, all of which helped me recover from my disordered eating patters: I made a group of friends where I lived in Missoula who would help me see my value apart from what I looked like; I took a creative writing course that would solidify my identity as a writer; I started trail running and re-discovered movement for the joy of it, rather than for calorie burning; and I found a cookbook that clearly explained how eating clean and feeling good are intertwined.
I now think of that spring semester, sophomore year as the renaissance of my life—a rebirth, of sorts, because of how these four vital shifts coalesced to produce a happier, healthier person. I began moving away from a “get skinnier” mentality, and into one of “I want to feel vital” mentality. Consequentially, I was able to naturally, slowly shed pounds, and eventually I came to a weight that I think my body considers true north.
I’m offering below a summary of these four shifts as a foundation for this mini-series on Holistic Health and Fitness. So often we’re offered diets and fitness plans, but rarely nutrients for the soil in which health practices take root. These lessons I’ve gleaned are on-going: ones I return to again and again.
1. I had to discover and believe in my inherent self-worth, and I needed to figure out how to relate to health and fitness from a place of joy, rather than a place of body-shaming. In order to achieve that healthy, trim body I had craved as a freshman, I had to start from the inside and do some serious self-healing. The ping-ponging weight issues only tapered off once I had moved away from obsessing about calories and pant sizes, and spent that mental energy on things that brought me joy.
I think this is why a “diet” mentality so often fails us. When I approached food and fitness from a place of “I want to lose weight,” rather than a place of “I want to be happy and feel vibrant,” (two very different things), I was telling my body that it wasn’t good enough: I was telling my body it was bad for being heavy, rather than it deserved to feel good.
Do you see the difference there? The way we phrase something can either bring joy and lightness, or shame and a heavy-handedness. The “I'm too heavy” mentality caused a cycle of discipline and revolt between my mind and my body, since I had subconsciously pitted the two against each other.
Looking back, I think I was projecting deeper emotional issues of not feeling good enough onto my body. That’s why discovering my value apart from my physicality proved essential for treating my body with respect. It was only when I began healing issues with self-worth that I was able to believe I deserved health and vitality. This is very much an on-going process, but just starting the journey—becoming aware of a journey—was the first step.
2. I created an identity that expanded beyond physicality. Though I have always been an athlete, it was an important step in my evolution as a whole person, (mind and body as one), to believe that I had talents beyond what my body was capable of achieving. Since I spent the majority of my life up that point identifying as a basketball player, I didn’t invest as many hours in cultivating my passions for learning and creativity.
I think it can be dangerous for our self-image when we become too attached to a physical activity. Though singularity does breed excellence, we also see how an injury can derail a life built upon a sport. I sometimes see it (and have experienced it) in climbing: an entire identity invested in physical performance, and the fickle nature of this self-image.
Cultivating passion and talent apart from athletics helped expand my self-value beyond what my body could do and what it looked like. I reignited childhood loves of reading and writing, and this use of mental energy helped shift my thoughts away from compulsive body shaming and into the rich realm of ideas and imagination. I don't think a life-balance of the mind and body requires sacrificing excellence, but rather creates resiliency.
3. I discovered and pursued physical activities that I genuinely wanted to do. Before I began trail running, and later climbing, I would go to the school gym and use the Eliptical. I remember the four different televisions displayed in front of the rows of workout machines, and how I would zone out while reaching the target calorie burn of the day.
It was soul sucking, and I wasn’t even aware of it at the time. Then one nice spring day, I opted to run outside on the trail near the school gym instead. The world flooded in: the nectar of new growth; blue skies and sunshine; the way rocks and roots varied the trail, demanding presence from my mind. I ran and ran because it felt good. I wasn’t counting calories on a screen or waiting for the clock to reach a certain time. I moved because it fed my soul, and my soul was very hungry.
Sometimes I still work out at the gym. I enjoy a good burn, and the training I do inside helps me prepare for the activities I enjoy. I also think running on treadmills and using Elipticals can create those good-feeling endorphins. The real shift wasn’t in how I exercised, but why.
Once I found physical activities that brought true joy, I didn’t feel like I was working out anymore. I still shed calories—more, even, than I did when that was my intention. But the goal with working out is to express my body and feel good, rather than compensate for that cookie I ate or to achieve the physique of a lingerie model.
4. I learned how certain foods create vibrancy, and how other foods create toxicity. It may seem like basic knowledge now, but as a freshman and sophomore I had little to no understanding on how food not only affected my body, but also my mind. Sure, I knew vegetables offered vitamins and minerals, and that I should eat them. But I didn’t know how to prepare them to taste good, and my tastebuds were set on Papa John’s pizza.
Killing time in Barnes and Noble, I came across a book titled Healthy Living from the Inside Out, by Mariel Hemmingway. She explained how heavily processed foods can create an addiction, and that the artificial ingredients in these foods causes brain-fog. The body can become disorientated, too, with all the sugar, fat, and synthetics prevalent in modern foods. Processed foods can rewire our cravings so that whole, healthy ingredients are less appealing than foods that come in packages.
Our bodies, when aligned with their natural desire to feel good, can tell us what we need. So many of the diets out there just seem to overly complicate things. The intent of a diet should be to empower the body’s innate ability to direct our food choices towards health and vibrancy. And instead of a diet as in “I'm on a diet,” the diet becomes a life-long practice of eating well.
What was revolutionary for me about that book by Ernest Hemmingway's granddaughter was how she clearly connected the dots between feeling good and eating well, rather than emphasizing that looking good can only come by depriving myself of those processed foods I once craved. Desperate for change in my life, I followed her first chapter, "Cut the Crap," to a T. I first had headaches and shakes as my body went through withdrawal. But a couple weeks in, the changes were extraordinary. I had never had so much energy. I began craving foods that made me feel vibrant. Most importantly, I was on the same team as my body again.
This, perhaps, is the central theme in these four foundations. Any fitness and health practice should aim to align the mind and body, creating a unified team within the self in search of health, happiness, and vitality. So that’s the starting point of this series. It’s an invitation for myself as well as those still here with me to remember the joy in pursuing the strongest, most vibrant versions of ourselves.