A Back Injury Forced Me To Reassess My Relationship With Exercise

woman in workout clothes

@oliviamuenter

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been in a relationship with exercise. Some years, the relationship was healthy, giving me an outlet for stress and anxiety and fueling my self-confidence and energy. Other years, the relationship was obsessive, motivated by self-hatred and a never-ending quest to lose weight. I’ve gone through phases where I talked about exercise to feel empowered—as well as times I shared out of fear people thought I was lazy or unhealthy at a size 16 (I can blame internalized fatphobia for that one). Most often, though, the relationship has been somewhere in between. Still, by the time I reached my late 20s, I knew enough about myself to know the constant back and forth was exhausting. At the beginning of 2020, I decided to change my relationship with exercise for good.

I got a treadmill and started experimenting with at-home workouts. I didn’t weigh myself after every workout session. I simply found movement I enjoyed and stuck with it. As I ended 2020, I felt better and stronger than ever. And then I committed to kicking things up a notch in 2021, telling myself the same thing I had told myself many times before, without even realizing it. What I had been doing for the last year, though it made me happy, simply wasn’t enough. I believed deep down—whether I wanted to admit it or not—exercise had to be a constant journey of leveling up. I told myself I’d work out 350 times in 2021, as if 15 off days made sense at all. I was getting married, and as much as I had worked on loving myself at any size, part of me still believed if I wasn’t trying to become smaller, I was failing. And then I hurt my back.

It’s still a mystery what exactly caused the injury, but putting my body through one or two hard workouts a day for 45 days straight is a solid possibility. Ten days after the injury, I could barely walk without a limp, but I insisted on pushing through the pain and working out anyway. To me, the pain was as uncomfortable as it would be to lose the habit of exercise altogether. I limped my way through workouts, took more ibuprofen than is recommended, and was committed to stay this way until my wedding. Then my doctor told me to stop exercising to allow the injury to heal—no running, no long walks, no weights, nothing. Naturally, I panicked.

I didn’t know how to process stress or anxiety without exercise. I worried I’d lose the “progress” I made. I convinced myself other, more fit people would work through the injury. At this point, I spent a year exercising more consistently than I ever had in the past, in part because I enjoyed it and I didn’t view it as a weight loss tool or punishment—but that wasn’t the whole story. I thought my relationship with exercise was healed. It wasn’t until I was forced to stop that I realized that it wasn’t.

I don’t have to have everything figured out; I just have to keep doing the work.

In my eight weeks without working out, I was forced to reckon with the fact that a deep, dark part of myself truly believed that I was a worse person when I wasn’t exercising. I believed this when I was a child, a teenager, and still as an adult. As much as I had pushed back against the idea of exercising having a moral value, the idea was so solidly rooted in me I knew it wasn’t going away unless I admitted it was there in the first place. Skipping workouts was uncomfortable to me, but it didn’t even touch the discomfort of fully accepting what had been going on in my head the whole time.

Instead of using these weeks without exercise as an excuse to let negative thoughts about my body and self-worth bubble up, I was completely honest with myself. I talked to my therapist about my rigid beliefs about exercise and about my history with disordered eating and orthorexia. I didn’t hold anything back, not even the parts that made cringe when I said them aloud. I worked through the discomfort associated with all of it.

By the time I was (slowly, cautiously) working out again, I had lost some muscle and endurance and all those things I thought meant so much, but I had gained an important perspective. I used to think my relationship with food and exercise would either be good or bad, healed or not healed. I thought existing in the gray area was a point of weakness, or failure. Now I know it will be a lifelong journey, one that’s less defined by perfection than it is by the work itself. When I think of my relationship with exercise that way, it feels less daunting. I don’t have to have everything figured out; I just have to keep doing the work.

Related Stories