From Disordered to Intuitive Exercise

Over the years, this blog has evolved from unashamedly sharing my lived experience to sharing specific Intuitive Eating and non-diet content.

And that progression makes sense as in 2013 whenI began writing online, I was speaking only of my own experiences. To now in 2020, speaking as a qualified Nutritionist, Intuitive Eating Counsellor, Health at Every Size® advocate and diet culture disruptor.

Truthfully, I've worried about sharing my lived experience. Concerned that it's not professional enough. That it's not "evidence." And yet, I believe firmly that's vital. So here I am sharing my story from disordered to intuitive exercise. Stories help us to understand, to connect and to reflect. That's my hope in sharing this story with you.

FRIENDLY BEGINNINGS

As a kid, I remember yearning to be physical. To feel movement. To do. Not in the sense of fidgeting and more in the sense of feeling most alive and joyful when moving. In practice this ended up looking like regular kid things. Running around, playing, dancing. And it also looked like sport and dance. Where even at dance class, I found choreography a restriction. I remember feeling like I wanted to simply move to the music. (I still feel that way). Formal dance classes nevertheless didn't last long.

I played team sports, namely netball. Though mostly, I swam. I swam in the backyard pool we had as kids. I swam in the ocean. I swam in the local pool. I swam everywhere I could. And I could swim subjectively well. My Dad was a competitive swimmer and this encouraged me. I swam in a squad-type set up from the age of 5 to about 14. I competed; hard; in local, regional and school competitions. I felt like a dolphin in the water, as if it was so natural. Weekends or trips to the beach were largely spent playing pool games (remember Marco Polo?), practising my ocean body surfing or generally playing around the water.

And from this time, I got to know my body in many ways. I became familiar with it as capable, strong and worthy. I "felt" my body when I used it and I loved that. I enjoyed feeling muscle soreness as a signal of use and growth. I loved "using" my body as an instrument. An instrument that often won accolades and also lost them.

I'm sure like all kids and teens I noticed how my body looked in comparison to other's. I know I sometimes felt uncomfortable though overwhelming this time of my life is one I remember with fondness. And not one of disorder. Movement was fun and playful. It provided a deep sense of body confidence and empowerment because of what my body was capable of, and nothing to do with its appearance. Furthermore, sport by this stage had taught me about discipline, commitment, hard word, perseverance, reward and also loss. Life lessons that I'm eternally grateful for.

 

THE CHANGING FACE

After spending a few years as a rebellious teen with zero interest in any exercise, I had a huge life shift. One that had been prompted by ill-health and several medical diagnoses. They rocked me and I wanted to do all I could for myself.

So at 20 years old I found myself with one clear desire when it came to exercise: to run from one end of my local beach to the other. And little by little, I achieved it.

I once again felt what it was like to use my body. The joy and confidence that I'd felt as a kid was beginning to resurface. And so I found new forms of movement. Running namely, though also weightlifting, all kinds of gym classes, boxing, surfing, yoga, cross-fit, obstacle course racing and even biathlons (swim/run events). I entered competitions to satisfy that part of myself. I trained hard. I made new friends. I felt strong and capable once more.

And yet it wasn't quite the same. In my early 20's, I welcomed in a whole host of negative body image concerns. Diet culture had well and truly taken its hold on my thoughts and actions by this stage of my life. And so what began at 20 as a positive and valuable pursuit, morphed over the years into a painful and oppressive monster. Exercise was now what I did. Not movement. Not sport. Not fun.

Despite the instincts the move for joy being present and trying to poke their heads through, the message of thin was louder. Throughout most of my 20's, my existence was so largely ruled by what I looked like. And pursuing an ever-thinner or "leaner" (same thing) version of myself.

I now had sought the structure and recommendations of a Personal Trainer and a Sports Dietitian in order to be "leaner." Never mind the fact that I had been at my own natural healthy weight level for my entire life until that stage. My weight had increased as it was meant to throughout growth and found its happy place without interference.

So now, exercise was about "earn and burn." About "toning" my arms. About having a 6-pack. It was literally everything about what I looked like. And gosh was it bleak. Boring, joyless, bleak. I struggled to find enough energy and strength - a reality of dieting and living in a calorie deficit - and the entire operation was lacklustre.

This period of exercise for me was in stark contrast to other parts of my life before it and since then. It featured no social interaction and no joy. Unless you count following countless thin "fitspo" accounts on Instagram? All it highlighted was how negative my body image had become and was becoming even more so. Because at this stage, at my thinnest and most dedicated to thin-ness, I was the most unhappy in my body. This level of disordered eating and exercise was taking its toll.

It's the only time in my life that I've had to "make" myself exercise. Interesting.....

OUT THE OTHER SIDE

Injuries and underlying body limitations have seemingly run much of my life since my early 20's. Each time one activity or event was ruled out; running was the first to go; I shifted and found the next thing to try.

And whilst this has been more challenging and draining than I used to allow myself to recognise, it's also been incredibly valuable. It's shown me how far those early lessons of perseverance and resilience have carried me. It's also allowed me to see how truly magical and joyful movement is, because of how much it hurt to lose it. Whilst I am able-bodied, I live with a heap of physical limitations.

And this all helped put things into perspective. That what my body looks like changes none of this. Thinner or fatter, I still have limitations. I however want to be clear that my journey to Intuitive Exercise (and Eating) was over years and a multitude of experiences. As is life. Prompted by my upcoming wedding back in 2014, I took stock of where I was at and how much headspace I was giving to all of this.

Read an old post of mine from the time about Why I Chose Not to Diet for my Wedding here.

And over the following years, I dug in and did the work. I stepped back and made shifts to my life. Just like with the beach running goal almost a decade before, I moved forward bit by bit.

I began exploring movement again with curiosity and joy. I gave myself permission to do what I enjoyed and nothing that I didn't. I actively worked on both my body image and relationship to food and I once again connected the social and community aspect of movement. Which included separating the idea of movement to my appearance. Truthfully, walking with a friend in person or on the phone is one of my greatest joys. I addressed; and continue to; the underlying limitations that I have with professionals to maximise my body's capability. And perhaps most importantly, I discovered self-compassion.

Whether because I'm the kind of tired that a workout won't help, feeling unwell, having a crappy body image day, on a deadline that matters more in the moment or whatever else, developing self-compassion has allowed for me to truly connect with my body's wisdom, and to trust it.

Now, I'm continuing to find the balance and enjoy it.

 

THE FUTURE

With gyms beginning to re-open post-COVID lockdown here in Australia, I'm once again reconsidering what movement will look like for me now and into the future. I'm considering taking up group boxing classes for the challenge and the connection. I'm considering re-booking swing dance classes that I began earlier this year. I'm planning to continue my new love affair with walking outside. (Who knew?!) And reviewing what this time away from more formal exercise (and injuries) will mean for my return to the weights room.

I know it will have elements of self-competition, self-compassion and joy because these all matter to me.

 

RESOURCES

Exercise is available for all bodies, should they choose to pursue it. Unfortunately, the fitness industry presents thin, white, able-bodied women as the ideal to us. Even if you identify as any of the latter (which I did/do), you may well feel on the outer of "fitness." I've heard countless clients fearful of entering gym spaces for a variety of reasons. Of being shamed by trainers and other health providers. 

Imagine if you don’t hold those privileges? We've clearly got a lot of work to do.

So if you'd like to explore Intuitive Exercise for yourself, try diversifying what fitness and exercise represents to you in the first place. If you follow fitness trainers, brands and accounts - what is reflected back? The thin, white ideal? Or something else?

This in itself is incredibly powerful and I speak about that from my lived experience.

You can also access a whole host of inclusive providers and brands. They exist. I've shared some of my favourites (both new and old) below. Feel free to add your faves in the comments. You'll also find our podcast episode on this topic below. A great place to begin the journey of separating movement and exercise from the way that we look. Enjoy!

 

 

Curvesome Yoga - Inclusive Yoga Community

Tally Rye - Intuitive Exercise Personal Trainer

Jabbie App - Black-Owned Inclusive, Fitness Community

Kanoa Fitness - Body Positive Fitness App

Meg Boggs - Fat Athlete

Women's Strength Coalition - Advocacy, Education and Community for Fitness and Movement

Lauren Leavell - Online Training

Decolonizing Fitness - Inclusive Fitness and Education

MissFits Workout - Plus-Size Movement and Dance

Fat Kid Dance Party - Dance Aerobics for all bodies

Louise Green - Global Fitness Coach

Superfit Hero - Inclusive Performance Wear

Karen Preene - HAES®-aligned Online Fitness Coaching

Renee Hamati - HAES® Fitness

Sally McWilliam - Body Positive Fitness

Kanoelani - Fat Athlete

Jessica Rihal - Inclusive Yoga

Mirna Valerio - Fat Athlete

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