Earlier this winter, after weeks of knee pain I couldn’t seem to shake, I finally made an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon. Five minutes, three questions and one contortion later, the doctor gave me his diagnosis: iliotibial band syndrome, a fancy term for when your IT band is tight or inflamed and being a real jerk in a general sense.
He prescribed an anti-inflammatory, physical therapy and avoiding any activities that caused pain. I quickly came to terms with the fact that pretty much all my usual forms of fitness (cycling, yoga, barre class and even walking) exacerbated my discomfort, which is how I ended up quitting exercise cold turkey for a month. As someone who usually makes a habit of exercising four to five times a week, it was weird to suddenly find myself without a routine. As someone who has often struggled to see exercise as an enjoyable health benefit instead of a chore laced with body negativity, it was also, quite honestly, a relief.
I relished setting my alarm an hour and a half later than I normally would on designated workout mornings. I loved having extra time to run errands or finish deadlines after work instead of rushing out to squeeze in a session at the gym. I was bowled over by the pleasure of actively resting my body instead of trying to push it to an intangible limit day after day, with no end in sight, like a hamster on a wheel.
My new fitness routine of not having a fitness routine was pure bliss, but beneath that sense of reprieve lurked the knowledge that my life as a professional lounger was temporary. It would only last as long as my knee injury, and thanks to four weeks of diligent rest, stretching and foam rolling, I could feel the pain starting to dissipate.
My relationship with exercise, however, was still in a critical state. I wracked my brain to recall the last time it felt healthy and came up blank. Instead, a memory surfaced from freshman year of boarding school: At 14, I had gained a modest 10 pounds courtesy of nothing more sinister than the onset of puberty, and I remember waking up early before everyone else in the middle of winter, when it was still dark, to run three laps around the campus.
Even though I no longer wake up before sunrise to run laps, I still feel trapped by the same culturally ingrained messaging that drove me to do so all those years ago. Especially now, with the wellness movement growing more lucrative and pervasive by the day, the idea that exercise is a tool for self-improvement (feel better! look better! be better!) is more palpable than ever. I can’t venture onto the Instagram Explore feed without witnessing a dozen “before and after” photos disseminated by the devoted followers of various fitness regimens. I can’t open my inbox without being inundated by press emails about pre-summer weight loss pitches. I can’t exist without being told I’m not okay just the way I am.
All of these realities are enraging enough on their own, but my real frustration comes from the awareness that exercise has the potential to be a really wonderful, enriching, life-affirming thing. I know this because I’ve seen the evidence on other people’s faces when they talk about their respective relationships with it — on my boyfriend’s when he talks about running as a time when he can decompress and clear his head, on my sister’s when she talks about how much she loves playing squash on her college team, on my friend’s when she talks about how good it feels to move and bend and twist herself into pretzel shapes during hot yoga.
These conversations have always made me a little jealous because I feel so far away from achieving that perspective for myself; but they also make me hopeful because they remind me it’s possible to get there. Even though it took an injury for me to come to grips with the fact that the fitness path I’ve been hurtling down for over a decade is hurting me instead of helping me (it’s no coincidence that IT band syndrome stems from overuse and lack of proper post-workout body care), I’m relieved it’s not something I can ignore anymore.
Ultimately, like any dramatic breakup, romantic or otherwise, my brief estrangement from exercise left me feeling a bit lost. In the months since recovering, I’ve been easing myself back into exercise with a yoga class here and a long walk there. I’m still figuring out what works for me and what doesn’t, but bringing my mental health into that equation feels like a good first step.
Illustrations by Amber Vittoria; @amber_vittoria.