I’ve had an unhealthy relationship with fitness my entire adult life.
I joined my first gym with my mum at age 11 and always enjoyed moving my body, but at 17, I became obsessive. I wanted to be like the thin women I saw in magazines who looked so healthy, happy, and beautiful.
Around that time, my friends were starting to diet and focus on losing weight, too. I always found myself gravitating toward whatever they thought was best, seeking external validation to soothe my insecurities. So I tried their juice cleanses and started working out excessively. I did six to seven spin classes a week and would go running on top of that. I became completely consumed with eating as little as possible and exercising as much as possible.
My life went on like this for another six years or so. I was dedicated to “clean eating,” when in reality I was binge eating and then either purging or, more commonly, exercising excessively the next day—and then fasting for three days after.
But at 24, I started dating a guy (who would later become my husband) who was a competitive bodybuilder. His friends were all dating bikini competitors, and they were so beautiful, so disciplined, so driven.
So I gave up my cardio-bunny ways and started training like a bodybuilder, hoping that doing what they did would make me happier, healthier, and more admirable.
Being part of the bodybuilding world gave me a sense of belonging—we bonded over how restrictive our diets were, how much we craved sweets and burgers and pizza but couldn't have them, and how we went overboard on our cheat meals.
But in reality, my eating disorder was still at full strength, just manifesting itself differently. I was lifting weights and doing HIIT or sprints six to seven days a week.
I eventually cut my rest days back to two to three per month. And while at first everyone was encouraging me to eat more, a few weeks in I started cutting out more and more foods—namely carbs—to see results more quickly.
I went from being obsessed with being skinny to being obsessed with being lean. I wanted my abs and veins to pop and I wanted muscular glutes and lean arms. Looking back at pictures, I’m still shocked at how small I really was. But at the time, I thought I wasn’t lean enough.
My mindset became more obsessive than before. I was calculating every calorie that went into my body, spent my weekends meal-prepping chicken breast and broccoli for the week, and had no social life. I never allowed myself to go over my calories or macros for the day, and if I did, it would end in a binge.
When I would binge, I would go so far as to call out of work sick the next day to go to the gym and work off the calories I had consumed, then cut back on food for the next three days.
Then there was the physical toll: My hair was falling out in chunks, my nails were brittle, my skin was dry and breaking out. I was always tired, I lost my period completely, and my hormones were completely out of whack. Mentally, I had no energy or space left in my brain to actually pursue things in life that would fulfill me. I had no career goals, and no real purpose outside the gym and my body.
My weight kept dropping and my body kept changing, but it never felt like enough to me. I never felt good enough to be a competitor, so I never ended up competing. But I kept training like I would.
Everything came to a head in October 2016 (when I was 26), a month after my wedding. I had been dieting harder than ever, and working out more intensely than ever to look fabulous in my dress. But I had been so calorie deprived for so long, I physically and mentally couldn’t keep up with my lifestyle anymore.
I hired a coach, who I worked with for six months, to help me gain weight back. I took a complete break from working out for more than two months. Mentally, I felt as if all my hard work had gone down the drain. And when I got back to the gym, I felt like I was starting from scratch. I felt weak, discouraged.
But every single day, when I woke up, I decided to try and just accept myself as I was. No more criticising, no more wanting to be something more. This didn’t always work, but on the days it did, I was able to train and just focus on getting stronger and doing something good for my body.
It was definitely a rocky start. Watching my body gain weight was really hard. I still had one leg in the bikini competition mindset and the other in recovery, balance, and true health. But a few months into eating more and exercising at a lesser intensity, I started feeling this sense of appreciation for my body, and how resilient it is.
The support from other women on social media helped immensely, and I started doing a lot of self care. I listened to a ton of podcasts about recovery and body positivity. During my break from training, I went on long walks, which helped me reflect and decide what steps I could take to lead a healthier life. I started following body-positive influencers on social media and unfollowed accounts (like bodybuilders or fitness models) that were triggering for me.
When I started exercising again, my workouts weren't as intense as they used to be. But about a year into my recovery, I noticed I was actually stronger. I felt more energized when I woke up in the morning, ready to tackle the day. That was a totally new feeling for me.
4. Now I train four to five days a week with less intensity.
I’ve been in recovery from my eating disorder for a little over a year. My focus is overall strength and conditioning, while having fun at the same time.
I’ve moved away from doing split workouts and instead focus on total-body strength, with a mix of cardio—such as box jumps, mountain climbers, burpees, and other “non-traditional” cardio variations.
Now, I eat intuitively. I try and include a protein source in every meal, such as eggs, chicken, beef, beans, legumes, and sometimes cheese or Greek yogurt. But my meals look totally different from day-to-day.
A typical day might look something like:
Breakfast: Eggs, toast, and avocado (in the past I would have never allowed myself to eat bread, but now I love it).
Lunch: Homemade burger patty with sweet potato and broccoli, a chicken wrap, or a chicken salad—depending on my hunger levels.
Dinner: Steak and pineapple skewers with brown rice, chicken and pasta, or sometimes breakfast for dinner (eggs and toast again, because it’s so yummy!).
Snacks between meals: KIND bar, mixed nuts, homemade trail mix, Greek yogurt with fruit, rice cakes with peanut butter.
6. I'm bigger, stronger, and happier than ever.
It’s hard to know I’ll probably never train as hard as I once did, but now I can lift heavier, and I can do fun things in the gym—and actually enjoy myself—instead of trying to shape a specific part of my body.
I am now the biggest I have ever been, and I’ve never been happier with my body. I am finally at peace with my shape; a lean body never made me happy or healthy.
7. Don’t sacrifice everything in your life to achieve a body you think will make you happy.
It most likely won’t, and it will take away your social life, your relationships, and your sanity.
Find an approach to food and exercise will make for a happy life with lots of trips and traveling (without obsessing over food), lots of girls night outs, lots of delicious meals with your significant other, and generally lots and lots of happy memories you otherwise would have missed if you obsessed about eating “clean” or having abs.
Memories over macros.
Follow Rini’s fitness journey @ownitbabe.
This article originally appeared in Women's Health US