April 24, 2021

Covid Changed How I Work Out. And You Know, I’m Not Mad

Holly J. Baptiste

When gyms closed because of Covid-19, lots of people thought I would freak out. They were wrong. I’d like to say that my relationship with exercise became serious when I realized how critical it was for physical health and overall wellness. Of course, if I told you that, I’d be lying. What really turned me into a gym rat was that I wanted to lose weight.

I was seventeen and had put on weight. Determined to be leaner come my senior year, I began power walking in the summer. At first, I hated it. I literally cried as I huffed down the street. In elementary and middle school I had been athletic. Now I could hardly catch my breath. I couldn’t believe I had become so out of shape.

The first month was rough, but I stuck to it. Soon, I found myself looking forward to the time of the day where I’d put on my sneakers and go outside. Exercise gave me a chance to challenge myself,  not just physically but mentally. Whenever I felt tempted to quit, my inner coach would shout, Don’t give up!

Unlike other areas of my life, I felt capable when I hit the road. I loved how my mind felt clear and focused. Although no one was using the term at the time, working out became my first introduction to self-care. Now, food? Whole different story. Like working out, changing my diet was difficult at first. I knew little about nutrition, other than I would have to eat less to lose the weight I wanted. I began skipping meals, opting for salads when I became hungry. As expected, my stomach, which gurgled incessantly, didn’t appreciate the switch from Burger King to lettuce. But eventually it grew quieter.

Yes, my balance and alignment improved too, empowering me to remain centered in pirouettes and turns, but yoga quickly became some much more. By the end of the summer, I had lost enough weight that my parents took me to a doctor. “You need to gain weight,” the doctor said, but I refused. After a few more visits I was diagnosed with anorexia. The diagnosis didn’t shock me. I knew my behavior with food was problematic. Still, I felt I couldn’t stop.

At their core, eating disorders are mental illnesses, formed by one’s biology, environment and often, trauma. My household wasn’t chaotic but it wasn’t exactly drama free. My parents fought about money and the cost of sending me to my private school. The people there were nice, but it was predominately white and I sometimes felt obligated to demonstrate that despite media stereotypes, black people could in fact, be sophisticated and not “hung up” on race, as some of my peers put it.

Understandably, this sometimes limited the emotions I was allowed to show.  It also meant I wasn’t going to speak a word about the abusive relationship I was in with one of my classmates. I was afraid people would think I was making it up or worse, was weak enough to allow myself to be in such a situation.

While I couldn’t step out of the roles I felt obligated to play for others, I could step into a role I was curating for myself. I wanted to create a mental fortress in my mind where no one’s expectations could hurt me. Controlling what I ate gave me a sense of autonomy. But as if the way with eating disorders, restriction took on a life of its own. Midway through the year, I joined a gym. It was a place I could go to escape my boyfriend, school, and the demands of my medical team.

Eating disorders are notoriously hard to treat and statistically, blacks receive crappier care than their white counterparts. In a review published in The American Journal of Public Health, researchers found that patients of color were viewed less favorably than white ones by medical professions. This resulted in them receiving less aggressive treatment and experiencing lower quality doctor visits.

My medical team was well-meaning but inept, focused more on weight restoration than the things that had caused me to fixate on my body in the first place. After an ill-structured re-feeding program, I began compulsively exercising to lose the weight I was forced to gain.

I’d work out for hours, trying not to look at the mirrors that were throughout the facility. People at the gym praised my commitment to fitness. I longed for the days when exercise was fun and something I did for myself. Now it was a prison of my own creation that I couldn’t escape.

Eventually my knees gave out.

Even after I committed to therapy and my injuries healed, my relationship with fitness remained warped. Although my feelings around food and weight had improved, I had become accustomed to putting myself through brutal workouts. People at the gym commented when I didn’t go as hard as usual, making my workouts feel performative. Like, who did I think I was walking on the treadmill? How dare I not sprint like my life depended on it!

Sometimes I would try something new, like taking a dance class. But I’d always have to follow it up with something more intense. Doing otherwise made me anxious. Ironically, my inflexibility about my routine made it impossible to athletically progress. I wanted to change. The shutdown of the gyms in New York due to COIVD-19 were my chance.

I started researching different workouts online and began trying them out the next day. I ran around my local track. I started jump rope and HIIT workouts. Not being constantly surrounded by mirrors (or people) allowed me to concentrate on how exercise made me feel instead of looked.

Although part of me missed the camaraderie the gym provided, I quickly came to love the way my workouts became like play. Once more, exercise became a way to not only challenge my body, but mind.  Like when I was seventeen, I realized I was stronger than I knew.  That’s really what wellness is about: finding the things that better your body and spirit.

Now that the gyms are open, I don’t know if I’ll return. As of now, I’m not really worried about it. That alone is something to celebrate.

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