Contrary to what your fat-shaming aunt says, running isn’t physically possible for everyone. It’s not an easy activity, and it can have hidden costs that make it less accessible than we typically believe. I’m not writing this to shame anyone or make underprivileged people feel bad about not engaging in physical activity. I’m also not here to extol the virtues of running and present it as the way to a “skinny,” healthy life.
For the longest time, I just saw running as an example of how my body failed me.
I associated running with gym class, where my classmates would run circles around me and the teacher would give me impatient looks over her clipboard. I connected running with burning lungs and raging shame, both on the field and in the locker rooms. I remember looking down at myself and simultaneously feeling disgusted and frustrated with myself.
Running was a performance test, and I was barely passing.
Truth be told, I’ve never had the best relationship with my body. As time went on, my relationship with my body soured further, thanks to a cocktail of bad relationships and misguided advice. Swimming became the only exercise I enjoyed, because it allowed me to dissociate completely. When I swam, I didn’t have to think about my thighs jiggling, my muscles burning, or a bunch of creepy men staring at my breasts. Essentially, I liked not being present in my body, and I did not want my detachment to change.
Then, I moved to a place where my only exercise option was running.
There were no pools for miles, and because of school and work, I had very little time. The neighbourhood seemed safe enough for me to wander out and run, even after dark. However, those childhood memories of jeering children and impatient adults held me back.
Eventually, though, I had to accept that I wasn’t a child anymore. The only person I needed to please was myself.
So out of desperation, I started running. I started with only 10 minutes at first, then 20, then more. My body didn’t change dramatically – at least, not to my knowledge – but as time went on, I found it easier and easier to keep going. Over time, my lungs didn’t burn quite so badly as my feet hit the pavement. If anybody insulted me as I ran, I didn’t know because I couldn’t hear them over my music. My joints didn’t hurt, and I found myself enjoying the outdoors again.
But, the most dramatic change was mental, not physical.
Little by little, my fog of anxiety started to lift enough for me to look ahead. I discovered that there was more to running than the horrors that I imagined. I started to appreciate what I could do more often. I learned that the limitations I had previously believed were insurmountable were, in fact, challenges that I could tackle. Did I win any races? Break records? Complete ultra-marathons? No. But I scored a point against my jerkbrain, which is no small feat when your anxiety is trying to kill you.
I decided that how we discuss running is the real problem. We act like running is an all-or-nothing sport. In the running world, you’re either a couch potato or an Olympian. You can’t just start running without a bunch of judgmental strangers telling you that you’re no Usain Bolt. And that’s sad.
We should all enjoy running as much or as little as we want, without fearing what others think. If we ran without fear, perhaps more of us would feel comfortable in our own skin. And maybe, just maybe, our toolbox of coping skills would feel fuller, too.