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What I Learned When I Took a Year Off From Exercise

Brianna Kwasnik

It was a hot May afternoon in Florida when my mom told me I was no longer allowed to exercise until I reached a healthy weight. She had already asked that I not post pictures of myself on Facebook, for fear that future employers might see what I was going through. I was stressed out, depressed, and losing weight fast.

My mom had another word for it.

Relapse.

I was working out six to seven days a week in hopes of alleviating my symptoms of depression. I was taking 18 credit hours of school and working 40-45 hours a week. In my mind, exercise was one thing specifically for me. In my mind, this was a positive thing.

That is, until it wasn’t.

I quickly became addicted to exercise, dependent on it like a drug, often opting to skip class, show up late to work (or work from home), and cancel plans and dates to get my fix.

It was my drug of choice.

When my mom asked me to stop working out, part of me refused, lashing out at her for not understanding, while the other part was relieved, as if someone had just begun to loosen the reigns my demons had on me.

It wasn’t until a few weeks later when my doctors diagnosed me with severe anorexia and demanded that I stop working out and do as little physical activity as possible that I started searching for other ways to occupy my time.

I was surprised at what I found:

• I started to enjoy hobbies unrelated to exercise. This was particularly challenging for me. Up until this point, my entire identity was based upon being an athlete, and someone who enjoyed working out. However, I reconnected with hobbies I used to enjoy before my depression resurfaced: writing, reading, and coloring. I also discovered that I really like to garden. 

• I became better at conversation. I was reading and writing more, so I became more curious. I wanted to listen. I wanted to learn more. I didn’t want to talk about what workout I was or was not doing, what diet I was or was not following, or hear about anyone else’s. I started asking better, more interesting questions, and in turn, got closer and begun to repair the relationships in my life I hadn’t been caring for. 

• I learned to appreciate my body for what it can do, not punish it for what it can’t. Since I was only allowed to do a limited amount of physical activity, I became appreciative of things like walking around the neighborhood or across campus, completing a yoga class, etc. 

• I learned how to enjoy food again, not fear it. When you’re in the “fitness mindset,” and never turn it off, it can be very damaging. However, when you take a moment to re-calibrate how you view food, you realize there is no such thing as bad food. Every type of food serves a purpose, and you need every component: carbs, fats, and protein. Opening my mind to foods that I have been avoiding allowed me the freedom to enjoy going out to meals with my friends, family, and colleagues, and explore new foods. 

• Focus harder on goals. When I took time away from worrying about the gym and planning my day around exercise and the type of food I would eat, when, and where, I had more time to focus on school projects, work and my own personal goals.

It’s now the beginning of May, almost a year after that phone call where my mom asked that I stop exercising. Having been in recovery for over six months at this point and fully weight-restored, I am just starting to feel comfortable to try moving my body again for exercise. I do so cautiously, knowing that for me, it will always be a slippery slope. For me, exercise addiction will always be there in the back of my mind, something that resurfaces in times of stress, a coping mechanism of sorts.

As I begin to explore different and new ways to move my body, I also fear it. I fear slipping back into the place of addiction, knowing that once I start, it is hard for me to stop.

I’m working on setting limits like working out only a few times a week, for a specific amount of time. I’m working on listening to my body and working out intuitively. If my body is tired one day, I am working on accepting the messages it is trying to send me, and do something else instead. 

I am learning to move my body in ways that are enjoyable for me, in ways that don’t feel like a chore. This time around, I am trying to include my friends, so exercising doesn’t become a solitary activity. We like hiking, swimming, and playing sports outside. I don’t like going to the gym, so I don’t.

This year, my goal is to practice intuitive exercise, a task that can be challenging when all of the messages pushed by mass media seem to be about how to get “bikini body ready,” or how to perfect this that, or the other body part. To do so is a learning curve. I may slip sometimes, and that’s okay. That is part of my journey.

Brianna Kwasnik is a graduate from The University of Tampa with a bachelor's degree in journalism. After struggling with depression and anorexia nervosa, she is passionate about advocating for mental health awareness and eating disorder recovery.