Diet and Exercise: Fulfilling Your Soul or Filling a Void

Differentiating between taking care of yourself with positive deeds versus using positive deeds as coping mechanisms to ignore underlying problems is probably the most difficult mystery to solve. We generally picture alcoholism, drug abuse, compulsive shopping, self-harm, binging (food, television, etc.), or even sexual intercourse as forms of coping mechanisms that do little to no good for our true underlying problems.

They all make sense, and I’ve experienced many first-hand. I’d eat anything in sight out of boredom, apathy, and sadness when I was in middle school. If a group of girls teased me before lunchtime or a boy told me I was ugly, I would dive headfirst into a tub of cookie dough or a pack of those Nature Valley oat and honey bars right after arriving home, and eating never seemed to stop. The processes of chewing, tasting, swallowing, and repeating numbed the pain temporarily, but the pounds piled on and never seemed to leave. I had to hit an all-time low to reverse my ways.

On the other hand, if I told you that protein shakes and morning runs might also be a band-aid over a wound rather than a preventative solution, you’d think I am wrong. Well, if you are currently starving yourself of important micronutrients and macronutrients–yes, carbohydrates are important–as well as ample time to rest, then yes, taking the other extreme will do you more harm than good.

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How many times have you told yourself that you can’t skip training today? That you’ve dragged yourself out of bed to run at least thirty kilometers? That you’ve refused a slice of pizza out of fear that you’d eat the whole pie? That you’ve numbed your cravings for Nutella spread on toast with another cacao protein shake just made from protein powder and water? That you’ve requested for reassurance that your grandmother’s homemade casserole is less than 300 calories, all after re-calculating your future macros to make sure everything fits? I don’t know about you, but I can resonate with all of these scenarios, and I think all of you can relate to at least one of them, whether presently or previously.

Once I buried my toes in the depths of the fitness world, I found it increasingly harder to pull myself back up to the surface of reality. Every mirror served as a physique evaluation. I spent more time in the gym than I did in social settings. I checked my calorie counter more than my text messages. Such dogmatic practices are not forms of self-love. They are strict practices that have been formed into habits. I thought that health and fitness were supposed to fulfill my soul, though they didn’t seem to do so.

Every morning, I would wake up with lingering symptoms of the damage–sore muscles, fatigue, a grumbling stomach, joint pain, and hunger for my addiction. Weigh myself every morning, exercise for hours, eat in a structure, and repeat. My days worked the same way without excitement nor surprise. My logical mind knew something was off and my intuition agreed. However, just like most addicts, I was blinded by my ego that refused to accept that nothing would work in my favor. It was medical intervention that served as my incentive to turn everything around. When I didn’t seek help, it came to me in a rude awakening.

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Question is, why did I have so much trouble breaking the chains from my ways? I continued on with this way of living because I convinced myself that these habits would be fulfilling in some way, even if it were a matter of time. Contrary to my delusions, I sabotaged myself to fill a void. The evening of my medical intervention, I sat down with myself in silence and solitude to answer some questions in utmost honesty. Why do I eat, exercise, and carry on this way? What am I missing? What do I seek? What am I trying to avoid? A while later, I pinned the cause on the dot. I was lonely, and I despised feeling this way. I wanted to receive more love from someone who could truly understand me. Over-exercising and selective eating were ways to make me feel better about how I looked in front of other people. Nevertheless, I was an outcast, someone who couldn’t skip a workout for a morning hike or enjoy some pizza over meal-prepped food. I was sick of my own routine and was losing in my own game.

Hence, I discarded the board all together and started from scratch. No more rigidity. No more over-exertion. No more spite towards my body.

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I started off by cooking food for and attending my yoga club’s potlucks. Once everyone presented their food on the table, I would bring myself to try every single vegan-friendly item on the table, despite it seeming fattening or unhealthy. Even if I knew I ate enough for my “allotted” caloric maintenance, I would continue to eat if I desired to. Then, I substituted my apartment-friendly morning cardio with group hikes or a restorative yoga class. If someone offered me food to try, I would comply, even if I wouldn’t voluntarily reach for it. Little by little, I opened my heart to new experiences and gestures.

What did I receive in return? Appreciation for what my body could do, a faster metabolism, less care about the diameter of my waist and the number on the scale, greater awareness of what makes me feel good, and love for overnight oats! Yes, I finally love overnight oats merely because I decided to try them at a potluck when I normally wouldn’t.

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Still, I have regrets. I wish that I skipped that extra hour of exercise to have dinner with my family. I wish that I ordered a customized vegan pizza for myself instead of ordering three pies for my club meetings and watching my fellow club members enjoying hot slices of pizza. I wish that I spent those thirty minutes in bed counting the amount of things about my friends that I’m grateful for, rather than thinking about how many calories I would have to eat the next day.

Overall, my social life has become so much more abundant because I can attend hangouts without worrying about eating food and missing sleep, spontaneously talk to my friends, and relate to all kinds of new people with an open mind. I still prefer to do certain tasks alone, such as grocery shopping, studying, and exercising. But I’ve realized that I don’t need to constantly be on my own if I want to work on myself and stay in my lane.

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In short, my advice encompasses listening to your body and its needs, initiating the journey by opening up to others, and taking the steps to meet those needs. If you intuitively feel off or empty despite your current dietary and workout choices, then you want to admit that your lifestyle habits aren’t the solutions. If you hate your job/school, have recently gotten out of a fairytale-esque relationship, feel abused by someone, or you simply don’t know what you want to do with your life, eating greens and kickboxing class won’t make those problems disappear. Depending on the problems at hand, changing them may entail you to exercise a little less and eat a little more refined. That’s okay. You can always get back on track after you’ve adjusted to your new life.

Exercise addiction, food addiction, eating disorders, and physical self-sabotage are all too real, and are all too challenging to escape. You don’t have to develop those out of becoming a little too attached to your healthy lifestyle. Besides, you have 24 hours in a day. Do you really need all of those 24 hours to be devoted to planning out your food and your workouts?

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