When I was at my heaviest I can distinctly remember how hard it was for me to get back into the gym after a year long hiatus. Not because I hated the exercise itself (that’s always been the easy part for me), but because in that year away from regular exercise I had gained a lot of weight. And I just knew that the people who recognized me would be horrified that I had let myself go.
See, for me, it wasn’t about feeling incapable. I knew I was capable. But I feared the quiet whispers and judgmental looks of complete strangers.
Looking back on it now, it seems pretty ridiculous to put the opinions of people I didn’t even know on a pedestal like that, but that was the emotional state I was in at the time. And it took a lot of introspection and questioning of myself before I worked up the courage to prioritize my fitness again.
In the end I decided to join an entirely different gym, but I think it’s a good example of how fear can keep us stuck. And how fear can prevent us from being true to ourselves and living our best lives.
I avoided a thing I loved to do because my identity was so wrapped up in the hypothetical ‘what if” of it all. The fear of “what if” was more paralyzing to me than the pain of self-loathing.
Up until this point, I had always been known as the fit chick among my social circle. It was a label I wore with pride. As a youth I excelled in several organized team sports — both in school and in private leagues. Then, upon college I moved to Park City where my days were filled with snowboarding after class and rock-climbing on the weekends.
Being active and moving my body was never something I put much thought into. It was just kind of who I was. The behavior patterns had long been established since childhood, so playing sports was not about fat loss or battling a poor body image. For me, it was just a way to scratch my competitive itch. And it was fun.
So, when I was forced to take a year off due to a serious back injury sustained in a car accident, I continued to eat in the same way I always had. But because I was no longer moving in the way I always had been, it didn’t take long for things to get out of control on the food front.
And the great thing about working from home? You don’t have to wear normal people clothes. Stretchy pants allowed me to continue gaining weight without the friendly reminder that I was testing the limits of my elastic waist band — and that at any moment, I could have been one pizza slice away from becoming a human sling shot and sending myself to the moon.
And then it happened.
You often hear that before people are willing to make changes in their lives — real, lasting changes — there has to be a catalyst that incites it. Well, for me there have been a several, but there’s one in particular that I feel compelled to share.
Over the years I had stayed in contact with a guy I had a thing for who lived several hours away in San Antonio. He and I met my senior year of high school and we had spent some time visiting one another back and forth in-between school breaks. It was nothing serious, but we had great chemistry and I was definitely into him.
The next few years he and I maintained casual contact and eventually decided it would be fun to spend another weekend together. Airfare was booked. Bags were packed. Plans were in place. It was going to be an incredible weekend filled with butterflies, rainbows, and unicorn farts.
Except it wasn’t.
My friend, a guy I had literally been in regular communication with for years, took one look at me as I exited the plane, gave me a half-ass hug, and then excused himself to get the car. He mumbled something about picking me up curbside and disappeared.
I grabbed my bag at the baggage claim and patiently waited for his car to circle the corner and head towards Terminal 2. One by one cars passed me by, but none of the drivers possessed a familiar face. Becoming increasingly confused, I called him and got his voicemail.
Another twenty minutes passed by. Nothing. Then thirty. Still nothing. Where was he?
As the seconds continued to tick, I knew something was up. I tried calling him again, but still no answer. Okay, now I was legitimately worried. I checked with the airport police and they confirmed that no one with his name had been involved in a car accident or arrested.
So, what does a resourceful girl like myself do in a moment of crisis? I looked up his parents name in the phone book (This was before Google was a thing, people. Don’t judge.), dialed the number and spoke with his Mom. I explained to her what was going on, expressed my concern for his safety, and asked if she had heard from him.
This is the point in the story where I really wish I would have just turned around and caught the next flight out of town, but I couldn’t conceive that a guy that I had built such a long history with would blow me off like this. That was a completely foreign concept to me at the time. I was convinced that something had gone horribly wrong and he was bound with duct tape in the trunk of someone’s car.
And something had gone horribly wrong, but just not in the way that I imagined it.
Shortly after the phone conversation with his Mom (and after aimlessly standing around the airport for several hours), he magically reappeared and gave me some bullshit story about being arrested. Due to my previous conversation with the police officer, I knew that wasn’t true. And that’s when it finally hit me.
This asshole had tried to ditch me. But why?
Later, as I was hauling my luggage up the stairs in his house, I overheard him on the phone cancelling the plans we had made with his friends for that evening. When they offered to come over to hang out at his place instead, it was clear from the conversation that he was too embarrassed of me to have them come over.
His body language also left no room for misinterpretation — this guy was not interested in being physically intimate with me in any capacity. There was no touching, affection, or even kindness in his eyes.
And that was it. That’s all I needed to know.
The picture was all coming into focus now — he was no longer attracted to me physically. But what had changed? This had never been an issue between us before. And that’s when I got it. I was a fat girl now. And if I wasn’t sexually desirable to him; I was useless. That made me an inconvenience; a burden.
For the first time in my life, I experienced what it felt like to be treated horribly because I was overweight. And we’re not even talking majorly overweight here, y’all. We’re only talking 20-25 pounds above my normal range — that’s hardly what I would classify as a prospective contestant on a season of “The Biggest Loser.”
So what did I do? Initially, I dealt with the rejection by eating. I wish I could say that was the moment that sent me back to my regular exercise routine, but it actually had the opposite effect on me. I soothed the pain by numbing myself with food. (If you missed last week’s blog post, I talk about my issues with emotional eating here.)
Exercise for fat loss
While I was in this emotional slump, I finally had the epiphany that by staying stuck and unhappy with myself, that I was essentially giving some dickbag complete control over my life.
And that’s what eventually propelled me into action. This was the turning point, where for the first time in my life, I took an interest in using exercise as a fat loss tool. This is also when I really began to embrace and fall in love with strength training.
As I was discovering a new passion and seeing results, I became hooked and wanted to learn more. I wanted to make sure that I was doing everything possible to ensure optimal results. I was borderline obsessive in my research about the different exercise protocols, supplements, glycemic index, carb-loading, carb-cycling, low-carb, high carb, IIFYM, etc. If it was on the internet and it had to do with fat loss, I read it.
In other words, I totally geeked out on this stuff. And I was deep in the rabbit hole for YEARS. And the thing about all of these great “tips” and “tricks”?
They actually made what was once a clear path to fat loss, a foggy maze. Now all of these helpful tools seemed hard and complicated — which diet should I be following? Should I be doing fasted cardio? And why wasn’t I lean already?
I always felt like I knew what I should be doing. If anyone asked me, I had an arsenal of answers available. I mean, clearly I knew what I was doing. I was eating the same six superfoods after all (except on the weekends, of course — because, ya know “rewards” and “treats”). I didn’t get it. Shouldn’t the fat be melting off my body by now? Shouldn’t I be looking like one of those fitness models on one of those magazines I saw at Barnes & Nobles?
And the ironic thing? There’s not a damn thing in any of those blogs, articles, or books that were going to reveal anything mind-blowing about my unique body and how it was going to respond to particular foods. That was something that could only be discovered by becoming the detective of my own body by utilizing the lost art of trial and error.
There could only be one solution: I wasn’t doing enough exercise. So, what did I do? I began to add cardio on top of my regular strength training program. And while that did help some initially, it also didn’t.
Cardio and cravings
The more cardio I did, the fatter I got. Not because of the cardio, of course, but because the cardio was beginning to play with my hormones
Meanwhile, there I was banging away on the stepmill for one hour every morning before heading into the office and then sometimes for another hour after I lifted weights in the evenings. Two hours of cardio a day was not unheard of for me back then. So again, why wasn’t I lean?
Well, for starters I was always eating, because I was was always hungry. My appetite could not be tamed. I was tortured with thoughts of food all day because my appetite was through the roof. I was perpetually having to white-knuckle my way around “bad” foods at every meal.
But now, as I look back on it, I was always hungry and always fighting cravings, because I was always exercising. Duh! I swear, dieting made me dumb. And the deeper into the dieting mindset I got, the dumber I got.
If you have ever gone from a sedentary lifestyle to jumping feet first into a workout program, you understand this immediate increase in hunger. You know what it’s like to experience anxiety around food and the mental effort it takes to avoid it.
I rode this merry-go-round for years: exercise an unhealthy amount, then eat an unhealthy amount. And then, because of all of the eating, I’d be immersed in guilt and shame, so I’d do even more cardio to burn those calories, and then end up even hungrier.
What a shit show.
And it’s not uncommon. It has everything to do with our hormones.
Increasing our exercise volume isn’t something that can be done without impacting our hormonal response. Yeah, we may be burning more calories through exercise, but how much more are we eating as a result?
When we’re obsessive with exercise and using it as a fat loss tool, our stress hormone (cortisol) becomes elevated. And stress has the ability to completely shutdown muscle development and/or fat loss.
It’s not uncommon to fight constant hunger pangs while losing motivation. Not to mention the damage to your metabolism and something you were once passionate about (working out) is now starting to feel like a full-time job.
Everything we do in the gym matters: intensity, workout style, duration, etc.
The best results I see from clients is from those who don’t spend all day in the gym — a quick 30-45 minute workout four times a week is a perfect starting point to see incredible results if executed consistently. That said, when it comes to fat loss, nutrition is king. There’s no amount of exercise that will shed fat as quickly as lowering calorie intake will.
If you have any questions or need some additional guidance on how you should go about balancing your nutrition and cardio needs, please reach out. You don’t have to continue down the same path I did. There’s a better way.