While watching the gymnastics and swimming portions of the summer Olympics, I’ve been reflecting on our relationship to our bodies and exercise. Obviously, some people are literally born to be high performance athletes (check out this video by David Epstein to learn more).
My question is: what about everyone else?
I started swimming competitively when I was 7 years old and continued through college. Then, in my early twenties, I took on short-course triathlons. I would wake up at 5AM, drink a Red Bull on my drive over to our meeting place, and join my friends for 6 mile run to start the day.
Oh, and when I wasn’t running, you could find me jamming out and sweating my ass off at spin class (makes me want to gag right now, just thinking about it).
When my menstrual cycle stopped in college, I went to a gynecologist who put me on the Pill, “No problem. We see this all the time with female athletes.”
No conversation about chronic stress.
No conversation about the hazards of a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet.
All I got was a shitty prescription for synthetic hormones.
My medical doctor leaned over his big table, winked, and said, “Keep it up! You are a lean, mean, swimming machine!”
Everyone thought I was a health nut.
I wore my fatigue as a badge of honor. Even after I got sick when I was 26, I wouldn’t give up my exercise. Holistic health practitioners told me to stop running and swimming, and I thought they were insane.
“But this is good for me! Don’t take it away!”
It wasn’t until ten years into my healing process that I realized I was using exercise as a drug. Cardiovascular exercise was how I felt alive.
We already live in a state of stress and sympathetic nervous system dominance. This is our culture. Pushing yourself past your limits day in and day out is celebrated. Busy is a drug, just like exercise.
That’s right, some people use exercise as a drug-like stimulant. I cannot tell you how many of my athletic clients I have talked to who say, “Yeah, if I sit still to read a book or watch a movie, I go to sleep. I just HAVE to move!”
Yes, of course, you do. I used to do that, too. You are tired and using exercise to prop yourself up.
I also worked as a nutritionist at a high-end sports club in McLean, Virginia, where I witnessed beautiful menopausal women torturing themselves by exercising like maniacs, under the illusion that they would return to their previous, thin bodies, as if one is better than the other.
But what if exercise actually makes you gain weight via the stress response?
Case in point: I had a client come in one day who said, “You know, something strange is happening. I injured my knee a few weeks ago and can’t run, so I started going to yoga class, and I’ve lost 5 pounds. I can’t make sense of it.”
I tried to make the most of the teaching moment with her, but just like me, many years before, she didn’t understand and as soon as her knee healed, she went right back to her cardiovascular exercise and straight back into her stressed-induced, inflammatory cascade from hell.
Another client, who was exercising three hours a day to ‘control’ his blood sugar, went on vacation and his blood sugar came down into the normal range. He felt guilty for not sticking to his exercise routine. As soon as he got home, he resumed his exercise regimen, and his blood sugar went back up.
He also kept exercising like a maniac despite the numbers on his blood sugar monitor.
Please, we have to stop living in our heads and get into our bodies. Our bodies have so much to teach us, if we would just listen!
Am I saying that we all need to become couch potatoes?
Absolutely not. What I am saying is that exercise has a dose-dependent response. Too little isn’t good, but neither is too much. In addition, context matters. What is good for one person may not be good for someone else.
Restorative exercise and appropriate strength training are an awesome way to take care of your self.
Exercise should give back to your body, not deplete you.
Exercise should reduce the stress response, not increase it.
Exercise should make you feel good, not exhausted.
Restorative yoga, chi gong, tai chi, dancing, gardening, walking, hiking, rebounding, gentle swimming, and Slow Burn are all viable forms of movement that facilitate vitality.
If you think that fitness and health are the same thing, you are seriously mistaken. When I was at my peak fitness level in college, I was well on my way to a life of chronic inflammation. This doesn’t have to be you.
My favorite book on strength training is Body By Science by Doug McGuff. It helped me understand that cardiovascular exercise is not all it’s cracked up to me. There is another way.
So let’s be honest…I get that what I am proposing here is a huge paradigm shift. I didn’t start making changes of this nature until I was a good eight years into my own healing process. That said, I feel confident that I have planted a seed in your mind that at some point in the future will sprout and grow into a new relationship that you will have with your body and exercise.
In the mean time, here are some things to think about if you or your children are going to continue to pursue intense cardiovascular exercise:
#1 Do not assume that your (or your child’s coach) knows jack about nutrition.
We look up to coaches or class instructors. We want to trust their advice. They are our leaders. Indeed, these are difficult waters to navigate.
When I was in college, my swim coach gave us a pep talk and said, “Each and every one of you need to eat like a football player. You need to eat a box of healthy cereal per day! Just eat it all day long.”
At the time, I actually did it. I was young, vulnerable, and uneducated. In our cafeteria, I ate raisin bran drenched in skim milk with a bagel smothered in low-fat cream cheese and jam. (Holy shit. I’m in awe of my past.) But now I know that the words healthy and cereal aren’t allowed to be next to each other. There is no such thing!
So if you are an athlete AND a carboholic, teach your body to run on fat for fuel. Watch the documentary Cereal Killers and educate yourself.
I should have been eating a stick of butter, instead of a box of cereal.
Many people are shocked to hear that the heart’s preferred form of fuel IS saturated fat. It is a fact.
A body that participates in cardiovascular exercise needs rest and repair. Go to bed as close to 9PM as possible and make time to nap during the day.
#3 Support your endocrine system.
When we live in a sympathetic dominant state of adrenaline, particularly exacerbated by cardiovascular exercise, our hormones take a beating. Our stress response can only stay engaged for so long before people begin to suffer reproductive hormone imbalances and relentless fatigue.
Back to the fat conversation, every single hormone comes from cholesterol, and your body makes more cholesterol than you could ever eat.
The low-fat diet trend that started in the 80s combined with an emphasis on cardiovascular exercise is a metabolic disaster!
First, you will want to eat organs and glands for their restorative properties. The Weston A Price Foundation teaches how to prepare these foods. If that is unappealing, then please consider supplementation. I use Standard Process, which includes therapeutic, concentrated organs and glands in their products. My favorite is Symplex F (female) and Symplex M (male), which is pituitary, thyroid, and adrenal support, along with ovarian and testicular extracts, respectively.
You will also want to employ the use of nervine and adaptogenic herbs, along with cardiovascular tonic herbs. Some of my favorite for athletes are schisandra, eleuthero, astragalus, and hawthorn, all of which are available through MediHerb who makes high quality herbal extracts.
(Please remember that these supplements are available through licensed health professionals. Talking to the 20 year-old in the supplement section of a health food store will only get you so far.)
To conclude, I realize that athletics can provide us so with many things: teamwork, discipline, goal-setting, and a sense of community, to name a few, but these don’t have to come at such a high cost. I would give anything to have the energy back that I wasted in the pool and in triathlons. But what’s done is done. All I can do now is learn from my past, respect my body, move forward and give back by educating you.
Now, I am much kinder and loving toward myself.
Maybe I will see you smiling on a walking trail around town – be sure to watch the faces of those runners though. Most of them aren’t smiling.
Exercise in peace, my friends!
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