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This post is part of my “Know Better, Do Better” series, in which I revisit an old blog post that makes me cringe because my thinking has evolved substantially since I wrote it. The text of the original post is in italics, with my somewhat snarky current notes in plain text.
Note: I wrote the original post in January 2011. I was taking biochemistry and anatomy, and waiting to find out if I was accepted to grad school at the University of Washington to become a dietitian. I was 100% in diet culture. Truly, madly, deeply in diet culture.
I chose this post to revisit because of what it reveals about my mindset at the time, and because there is a theme about listening to and trusting your body that I 100% agree with, even though how that manifested in my life at the time was a bit problematic. I’m also going to get real personal in this updated version, and take a jab at pumpkin spice lattes. Without further ado:
Last summer, I got myself into awesome shape by competing in a transformation challenge that had the unfortunate side effect of making me want to pull my hair out and/or throw things. It was too much, for too long.
Hello, understatement of the century. I was doing an online body fat loss challenge AND I was doing an “workplace wellness” weight loss / exercise minutes / step challenge. I don’t actually know that my physical fitness was any better for it, because it was already good going into it. I do know that I was compulsively exercising, unhappy about it, and only bolstered by the dangerous praise I was getting for my “dedication.”
Anyhoo, one of the cornerstones of my efforts was the weight training program I devised for myself. It involved working out legs, back and biceps two days a week, and chest, abs, shoulders and triceps on two other days. It’s not a hard-core bodybuilding program (many bodybuilders and fitness models break up their body parts even more…doing only one or two per workout), but it is different than what is “popular” right now.
Nothing wrong with working out that way, and I do remember enjoying it. I also knew exactly what type of workouts fitness models were doing because I was freaking obsessed with the magazines that featured them, their obsessive workouts, and their very disordered eating. I wanted to be them.
You’re not the same today as you were then
What’s popular in the fitness world is full-body workouts, two or three days a week. There are any number of successful e-books and printed books promoting programs that include this type of workout. I had pretty good luck with one of them, [name redacted, because it’s very weight-loss focused and I would never recommend it today], a few years ago.
Ah, e-books. I was very into self-published PDF e-books from fitness trainer bros back then. That’s how I first dabbled in intermittent fasting and Paleo. This was well before you could find a single book on Amazon or bookstore shelves, and before there were five gazillion mainstream articles about it.
So in September, I started a similar program, from an e-book. I had a little unexpected surgical hiatus, and then I got right back to it. Yeah…this program doesn’t work for me. Three workouts a week, with 30 minutes of exercise on the other days? Doesn’t cut it. I won’t name the e-book, because I think that program is great for many people. Just not for everyone.
First of all, I totally do full-body workouts now, and that’s what I prefer. So, even though I was truly doing the right type of strength-training workouts for me at the time, what’s “right” for me has changed over time. That is a good thing to keep in mind when it comes to movement, how we eat, etc. What we’re doing at any given time might be dysfunctional, or not, but even when it’s not, what’s right for us at one point in time might not be right later on. We’re not robots.
Now, time to get personal.
My “little unexpected surgical hiatus” was open abdominal surgery. On a fine September day, I was doing some recreational shopping in downtown Seattle, which also included my first and only pumpkin spice latte. I didn’t feel very well, and thought it was the PSL, which I hadn’t enjoyed. That evening, I drove with a friend across the city to a bellydance class. I felt a little off during class, and was glad that I only had a light meal beforehand (I thought it was a whole exercising-after-eating thing going on).
On my way home (again, driving) I started to feel worse. Woozy. I dropped my friend off, then was hell-bent on making it the final 10-15 minutes home, even as I was feeling worse and worse. At one point, my vision started to gray out around the edges (a sign I was close to fainting). I made it home and collapsed on the couch. I was faint, dizzy and experiencing extreme abdominal pain. My husband called 911, and paramedics took me to the emergency room because my blood pressure and heart rate were shockingly low. I was white as a ghost. Later, I would joke that I had my first ever PSL and then had to go to the ER.
In the ER, a CAT scan showed a growth around my reproductive organs. They couldn’t tell if it was a cyst or a tumor. Some pain killers and one follow-up appointment with a GYN surgeon later, and I learned I had massive uterine fibroids. While the surgeon presented several treatment options, she recommended a hysterectomy, I cried at the idea of having an ORGAN removed because it felt surreal, but I opted for the surgery. (I was already childless by choice, so that part was not an issue.)
I was glad I was healthy and in good physical shape going into surgery (that’s never a bad thing), especially because the fibroids were too big to be removed laparoscopically, so they had to cut me open. The surgery went smoothly, but what did not was my reaction to my temporarily changed body afterwards. I gained a HUGE amount of fluid weight in my lower body. When I looked in a mirror, I freaked out. When I got home, I weighed myself obsessively and tracked every ounce as it came off. I even wondered if I would weigh less because I no longer had a uterus. It was so twisted!
What, me human? Rest is for sissies!
I also did not want to give myself time to rest. Before I even had the surgery, I was freaked out about not being able to start my first term of biochemistry on time (I wouldn’t be able to drive or hoist my massive textbook for a while). I negotiated terms with my surgeon (which was basically me promising that my husband would drive me to and from class, and carry my textbook for me to and from the car and the classroom door). Because if I wasn’t productive, if I didn’t stick to my rigid timeline, who was I?
So I’m going back to the basics. I pulled out one of my plans from the summer, and if the soreness of my muscles is any indication, it’s working (it also tells me that the program I had been really was not giving me what I needed. Since my cold doesn’t seem to be grabbing hold (I threw chicken soup, vitamins, and five million cups of hot water with lemon at it yesterday), I’ll be enjoying the following workout as soon as I publish this post.
Look at me, still not allowing myself to be a mere mortal. Now, there’s nothing wrong with knowing when it’s technically OK to workout when you’re sick, and when it’s not. (My rule with colds is if the symptoms are all above the neck and there’s no fever, then exercising, perhaps modified, can remain an option.) But my chomping at the bit to get back to my basement weight room at that time was largely because I was afraid of what would happen if I didn’t. Fear I would suddenly become “unfit,” but more certainly fear I would gain weight.
In the rest of the original post, I outlined my warmup and workout in mind-numbing detail (yawn). I chose to delete it here in favor of taking a big picture look at my mindset.
On the one hand, I was listening to my body about what type of workout felt good. (And listening to my mind, because full-body workouts really did feel tedious back then, even though I love them today.) But what was glossed over in my original post was the dangerous ways I was NOT listening to my body.
- I allowed myself to drive while I was experiencing signs I was in danger of fainting. I had a dear friend in the car shortly before that point! This was all kinds of stupid, I just…I just can’t. I could have easily left my car at my friend’s house and had her drive me home, or had my husband come pick me up. My body was telling me something was really wrong, but I wouldn’t listen.
- I kept up with the “transformation challenge” even though it made me unhappy and even though I ended up in the ER the previous June because I was ignoring signs during my workouts that I was developing shoulder tendonitis. My shoulder pain was flaring up one Saturday morning, and I had a big bellydance performance that afternoon. My husband suggested that I cancel, but I wouldn’t, and then I literally could not raise my right arm once my body cooled down after the performance. I ended up in the ER because the pain was so excruciating I would not have been able to make it to Monday morning to see a regular doctor. It was give-me-a-bullet-to-bite-on pain. I was making sounds only dogs could hear.
- I ignored the fact that I was having trouble peeing. My fibroids (my surgeon said “Your poor uterus looked like a hammerhead shark”) had been pressing on my bladder and ureter (the tube between the kidneys and the bladder). This made me unable to pee for a while in the mornings (until the fibroids shifted in a different direction, I presume). I ignored this for months!!!! I could have lost a kidney!!!
- I was putting “fitness” and maintaining my recent weight loss above my 100% totally legitimate need to rest and recovery. No rest for me!
The moral of the story
Our bodies share important information with us via their cues, signs, signals and sensations. Our bodies tell us:
- When we need to eat
- When we’ve had enough to eat
- What types of foods make us feel nourished
- When we’re thirsty
- When we need to pee or poop
- When we’re too hot, or too cold
- When something we touch is too hot, or too cold
- When you are doing the right kind of movement for your skill /fitness / energy level
- When we’re injured (or heading towards injury if we don’t intervene)
- When we shouldn’t trust that person (or go down that dark alley)
- When we’re stressed or anxious
- When we’re depressed
- When something physically is wrong
- When we need to sleep
- When we need to rest (which is not the same thing as sleep)
- When we’re overstimulated (or understimulated)
But none of this matters if we don’t listen. None of this matters if we don’t listen then trust. Listening to (and trusting) our bodies is important all the time. Listening when things are good and “normal” will give us a baseline so we can tell when something’s changed, when something’s not right for us or with us. That’s important, because in big ways and small, our bodies change over time.
When you listen to your body, it’s easier for you to tend to your biological needs, protect your health and well being — and keep yourself safe. I had to learn that the hard way.
- Today, when my shoulder tendon twinges, I back off on certain movements and watch and wait until it feels OK to resume them.
- When the flu (or more recently, getting the flu shot and a COVID booster the same day) leaves me wiped, I rest.
- When I don’t sleep well, I check in with my body as I exercise to see if I need to make it less challenging.
- When I feel anxious, stressed or overwhelmed, I practice self-compassion and get curious.
- I always had a good gut sense about people, so that part hasn’t changed!
Listen and trust. Listen and trust. Then listen some more!
Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health. This post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute individualized nutrition or medical advice.
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