Walking into a gym when you’re obese takes courage. Although I eventually used exercise to help with my 140-pound weight loss, I did not start being physically active until I had already lost 80 pounds. I’m writing about my experience for a couple of reasons — first, you don’t need to exercise to have significant weight loss. Second, I had to wait until I was mentally, as well as physically ready to start the process of introducing physical exercise into my daily routine. A large part of this process is being emotionally ready to tackle all that comes with new habits, like going to the gym. I hope telling you my experience can help you see how it’s possible to get started.
In the fall of my sophomore year of college, I went with my roommate to the gym at my university for the first time. I weighed about 190 pounds at that point — and yes, it was just as intimidating as you might think. The first step of gym intimidation is the dressing room. It was very uncomfortable to enter the locker room and see all the people who looked so confident that they didn't even seem to care about who saw their bodies. I am not confident in my body. I had eliminated this first hurdle by changing in my dorm before even entering the building.
As soon as I walked into the equipment room on the first floor of the gym, I saw what looked like an assembly line of treadmills filled with “cardio bunnies.” You know, those girls who (in my eyes at least) looked like they didn’t need to be there in the first place. The room was lined with floor-to-ceiling windows facing a busy sidewalk on a main street. Great — more people who could gawk at me. My roommate pulled me up the stairs to the third floor space with more cardio equipment. Although I appreciated the significantly reduced number of people and the distance from the street, I felt like my cardio was already done after those three flights of stairs! How could I do even more? It was discouraging to think that if I couldn’t even get around this building, how was I going to get fit?
My roommate and I found two ellipticals next to each other off to the side. She said we’d do just 20 minutes, to get our heart rate up and get our legs warm. Easy for her to say — she looked like she belonged there. All I could think about was all the eyes that were watching me, all the people who were judging me, all the people thinking that I was the token fatass who would give up after two minutes. They probably thought I was going to just huff and puff for those two minutes and then reward myself with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Half Baked ice cream on the way home.
Honestly, no one could be more surprised than I was that I lasted the whole 20 minutes. Don’t get me wrong, my legs hurt like hell, and I felt like I’d completely run out of oxygen— but I also felt something new. I was proud of myself, and I felt like I had actually accomplished something significant. This definitely made me feel like doing physical exercise was possible, that I could actually keep going with this.
Here’s another truth — I failed. I really did! I will admit it, and I think it’s important to say so. I did not step foot in that gym for another two months after that day. Things got in the way, my life was too crazy… I could go on. Honestly though, I have to admit that it was also just so hard to even think about going to the gym again. But I still wanted to give myself credit for having the courage to enter the gym, occupy space there, and survive. I didn’t let anybody’s real or imagined judgment keep me from moving. I did not let my own mental blocks keep me from finishing 20 minutes on that elliptical. This really is a victory, but I had to take some more time before movement really could be a bigger part of my life.
A month and a half after that first trip to the gym, I found a program called “C25K” or “Couch to 5K” through a forum on reddit.com. This 8-week program uses interval training to enable a person who cannot run for more than a minute at a time to eventually run an entire 5-kilometer (3.1 mile) stretch. I thought to myself, “Hell, I did 20 minutes on the elliptical and didn’t die. I think I can at least try this, too.”
I loved how little commitment was involved. Actually, that was my favorite part. My friend Sarah wanted to try it as well. I truly could not have done the program without her because she was my accountability partner. We literally scheduled our runs in our calendars like a meeting so that we couldn’t make any excuses. I thrived with structure, and I also was motivated to show up because I knew how guilty I would feel if I stood her up. We even went so far as to send each other photos of our feet on the treadmill if there was ever a time where our schedules did not align. Our system really worked, and it worked for us. This is why I believe we were so successful together.
Completing the C25K program was one of the hardest things I’ve done. It was both physically and mentally challenging. I had to keep running even when I could feel the fat jiggle up and down in my face and stomach and legs. It was embarrassing enough to run by myself, and now other people could see me too? Damn, it was so emotionally tough! But I did it. There were definitely many times I felt like crap. But I did it. Was I aware with each run that I was truly instituting an entire lifestyle change? Hell no! I was taking it just one run or workout at a time. Incredibly to me, by the end of those eight weeks, we were ready. We ran those 5K’s, and we felt on top of the world.
When it came to exercise, it was the same as losing weight: I needed to find my own way, and that’s what I recommend for you, too. Find something you like to do, that keeps you engaged, excited, and motivated. I started with running and the C25K program, but it’s perfectly okay if running is not the best choice for you — maybe it doesn’t feel good for your body, maybe it’s just too damn boring! Why run if you hate it? You’re not going to stick with it, and then you’ll feel discouraged. Maybe your best fit will be walking, biking, Zumba, swimming… the possibilities are endless. Let me know if you need some encouragement!
I found C25K played to my strengths, in that I am competitive against myself. I pushed myself to run just a little farther with each run. It didn’t have to be monumental, but it had to be something. This kept me motivated to continue with this exercise. Maybe having a competitive spirit doesn’t work for you, and that’s perfectly all right, too. Try something else. As long as you don’t give up and you keep playing the long-term game, good things will happen. Your relationship with food, your body, and your spirit will improve. You will feel more confident and empowered. Don’t let go of that hope — it can make all of the difference in this experience.