My feet drug as I labored up the Stairmaster, completing the final leg of my workout. Sweat trickled down my temple and I tried to ignore the burning sensation in my calves. Breathing heavy, I gripped the side rails and watched the seconds on the machine's clock tick by, willing them to pass faster. All the while, numbers raced through my mind:
40: the number of minutes I’d already worked out
20: the number of flights I’d climbed
18: the number of hearts on my recent Instagram post of the quote, “Dreams don’t work unless you do”
15: the number of minutes I had left on the Stairmaster
10: the number of stubborn pounds I thought I needed to shed to feel more confident in my skin
This was me the year I joined an online fitness community for women. Until I reached my mid-20s, maintaining what I viewed as a “healthy weight” had been easy — I loved to run and ate a balanced diet, with the occasional drinks out and treats. Then, the number on the scale started creeping up and my metabolism started slowing down and I knew it was time to make a change. Desperate for a magic bullet, I waffled between various extreme diets for a few years. In 2015, I committed to a particular plan and became one of thousands of women who used dedicated fitness accounts on Instagram to track daily meals, workouts, and #goals.
That year and the one that followed, I spent more time than I’d like to admit taking pictures of my food, scrolling through Instagram, and planning out my weekly fitness schedule, which some days included a.m. and p.m. workouts and daily meal prep. I made protein muffins, hard-boiled eggs, salads, and homemade hummus (and a giant mess in the kitchen) every #mealprepsunday and poured over before and after pics on #transformationtuesday. Keeping up with this lifestyle dominated my consciousness and my free time. If I wasn’t working out or prepping food, I was often on my phone participating in the community. I was making healthy choices, but I was living life distracted. I also knew some of these habits — the obsessive planning, the mindless scrolling and comparing, the constant awareness that I didn’t ever feel good enough — were a bit unhealthy, but I kept at it, because, the thing was, the program was working. I had started to tone up.
I let my quest for a physically smaller body consume my life and though I’d made progress, it never felt like it was enough. I never felt comfortable in my own skin. I was perpetually chasing "the last 10 pounds” — until I got pregnant.
Looking back, I guess you could say I was a bit obsessed with food and fitness. I let my quest for a physically smaller body consume my life and though I’d made progress, it never felt like it was enough. I never felt comfortable in my own skin. I was perpetually chasing "the last 10 pounds” — until I got pregnant.
In spring of 2016, it was 3 a.m., and I was eyeing down two positive pregnancy tests, tears of streaming down my cheeks. My husband and I had been hoping and praying for a baby for some time and it was surreal to know I was expecting. In the weeks that followed, I tried in vain to keep up with my old lifestyle. Pre-pregnancy, I’d rise early to fit in a workout, shower, and eat a healthy breakfast (oh, and write a post about my morning on Instagram, of course) before commuting to work. When my 5 a.m. alarm went off signaling it was time to exercise, a new kind of tiredness swept over me. I started to swap workouts for extra sleep, peeling myself out of bed two hours later to get ready for work. At night, I traded hard workouts for walks and gentle yoga.
Then there was the morning — or, in my case, the all-of-the-time — sickness. I felt as if I was on the verge of puking morning, noon, and night. Nothing I was used to eating seemed to help — in fact, many of the healthy foods I loved (salads, yogurt, chicken breasts) only made that nauseous feeling worse. To temper my queasiness, I turned to crackers, toast, and other bland carbs — foods that had been “off limits” when I was following my plan. Cooking, too, made my stomach turn, so I ate out a lot more than usual or asked my husband to cook.
Once I gave myself permission to quit — both the community and my regimented fitness routine — I recognized how much time and mental energy I’d wasted and how utterly exhausted I was.
Unsure of how to manage my Instagram fitness account, I just stopped posting. It was too early in my pregnancy and I didn’t want to give away my secret, nor did I want to be judged for slacking on my morning sweat sessions. I felt sad and also a bit relieved to be taking a break from posting so often. I didn’t expect my pregnancy to disrupt my routine so quickly. Actually, I was a bit shocked by it all. At first, I missed the comfort of my old life and harbored a guilty conscience for just ghosting on my fitness community. I just couldn’t bring myself to go back. I knew being a member of that community was no longer serving me. I embraced and met my body’s changing needs: more sleep and more calories, less screen time and less stress.
Once I gave myself permission to quit — both the community and my regimented fitness routine — I recognized how much time and mental energy I’d wasted and how utterly exhausted I was while striving for a better body. I slowly started to accept my pregnant, growing body in its current state. I stopped thinking about what I should look like and enjoyed what I did look like. I started to see exercise as one small part of my day, not the most essential part of it. I realized I didn’t have to overanalyze every bite of food I put in my mouth, nor did I need to take a picture of it, to eat healthfully.
Food and fitness, which had been such big parts of my life up until my pregnancy, had faded into the background of my consciousness. There were other things on which to fixate, like where we would put down roots and all the things we needed to do to prepare for baby. My doctor encouraged me to continue eating whatever made my body feel good, including pasta and other carbs, and focusing on gentler exercises like yoga and walking. I released any previous association I had with foods I’d labeled “good” or “bad,” and for the first time, I practiced eating without judgment. My belly continued to expand, and although it was hard, I worked to silence the voice in my head that dreaded my body getting “bigger” and “bigger.”
My son was born at 8:05 p.m. on January 30, 2017. Even though I’d loved him throughout my pregnancy, the love I felt for my baby the moment I finally held him in my arms was startling. It was the deepest connection I’d ever felt in my life. His arrival brought all-new meaning to my life.
Currently, I’m 11 weeks postpartum and adjusting to life with baby. Since I’m breastfeeding, I pay close attention to what I eat because I want to make sure I get enough calories to feed my son. I’m also exercising harder again, and it feels good — really good — to be doing more than light yoga and walking. The baby weight is slowly coming off, and I'm happy because I want it to. But this time around, I’m taking a different approach to food and fitness than I did before. I don’t have the time or the energy to get down on myself if I miss workouts, and I do the best I can with my food choices (some days this simply means remembering to eat). I’m also practicing the radical self-love and compassion I cultivated throughout my pregnancy. Admittedly, it’s not been easy. There are new curves and layers of fat on my postpartum body that I'm not used to having.
Yet whenever I start to turn towards feelings of inadequacy, I remind myself that my body just did an incredible thing: it ushered a new life into the world, and it's still recovering. And right now I have an important job to do: feed and nurture my son. And that does really matter more to me than a number on the scale.