AIP Balance Week | Day 4: Exercise

As a foreward, this photo was taken in September 2013 prior to the start of AIP while I was on a Paleo diet and at the height of my exercise  craze (I am very competitive with myself and quickly learning that is not the best trait for someone with AI!) I was transitioning between a career in advertising (which I ran away from as fast as I could thank goodness) and going back to school for a master’s in occupational therapy (a career I am very passionate about – woohoo!) I felt a little lost without my 9-5, and frankly I was bored attending school part-time and working part-time. I filled this void with a big fat helping of high intensity cardio and long distance running. I now weigh 20 lbs more than I did in this photo, and I can still do just as many box jumps and pushups as I could back then but I exercise much less and focus on a high-nutrient diet, relaxation, hobbies, and self-love. I don’t regret my past choices, but I have certainly learned how exercise at the wrong intensity and frequency can negatively affect any female, especially those with autoimmunity and leaky gut. If you don’t believe me, please read The Paleo Mom’s article  “Why Exercising Too Much Hurts Your Gut”

My enjoyment of physical activity can be attributed to a few factors. I think my constitution plays the biggest role: I am fiery, anxious, high energy, and a competitor at heart. I grew up playing soccer and enjoyed the slide tackles (not even legal) just as much as scoring a goal. Once I took my first boot-camp style class, I was hooked and loved (love) being the chick who can run the fastest, do the most burpees, or be the last to pass out in the grass after some heavy tire flips. Exercise is a HUGE part of my identity, and I intend for it to always stay that way, but while on AIP I have learned that it must be in balance with other areas of my life. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing. I also had to learn this the hard way about roasted marshmallows. 

I mentioned in my post earlier this week on infertility that exercise restriction played an important role in the restoration of my fertility. This allowed my body to gain the weight and fat I needed to menstruate again. It also helped me refocus my energy on eating nutrient and calorically dense AIP foods instead of thinking of food as fuel for my workouts. The past several months have been the first time since I was 14 years old that I went a day (or days and days) without exercise. I used to wake up at 5 am to get an hour workout in, no matter how fatigued I was from last night’s gym session or happy hour. I would work out when I had a head cold. I would spend vacations exercising in the morning instead of getting rest. I convinced myself that at least an hour a day of high intensity activity was necessary for me to maintain my “ideal” body composition. And you know what – it WAS necessary. I would not have been able to look as lean and toned as I used to without all of that dedication in the gym. Great. And what did I get out of it? 1) Envy of females who also have distorted views of beauty 2) Male disinterest – I looked like a little girl, let’s be real here. 3) Worsened leaky gut 4) Amenorrhea 5) Anxiety if I couldn’t exercise.  Any of that sound healthy to you? Since focusing on more important things in life, namely my health, marriage, personal growth, and friendships, I have also spent a good amount of time reflecting on why I felt the need to overindulge in exercise. For one, I have an anxious personality and used exercise as a way to manage stress, but then I spent a percentage of my day worrying about whether or not I would have time to work out. Great, that makes a lot of sense. Next, I’m a sucker for dopamine rushes. I am known for giggle attacks, hyperactivity, crossing boundaries and spontaneity. Really, if there is a boundary, I am on the other side. If I make a goal for myself, I have to surpass it and in half the time I aimed for it to take. I have difficulty just being and this manifests in a lack of stillness. My brain saw the runner’s high as positive reinforcement and there’s only one way to break a behavioral response: take away the stimulus. Lastly, I’m habitual and use these habits to unconsciously manage my anxiousness. When I was little I would suck my thumb, bite my nails, and pick my scabs until they bled. So cute. As an adult, I dust on Thursdays, do my laundry on Fridays, and freak out if I don’t have a credit card in my pocket at all times (“What if I get thirsty!!!”). Clearly not easy-going by nature, physical activity has always been a way for me to get my “beans out”, as my Mom used to say about me. Man I was a hyperactive child – I don’t think I ever stopped moving. I’m still that way, which I personally find endearing because it reminds me of my beloved grandmother, but my husband finds annoying. 

Well, I’ll be flat out honest with you and myself. My perfectly toned little beach body was one of the reasons my body halted (in my opinion) the purpose of life (please take industrialism, feminism, and gender inequality out of the equation for the sake of this discussion) in the most basic way: to produce offspring that can carry on the responsibilities of modern human beings. Now that was an incredibly simplified explanation of how much value I place on reproduction, and I can think of dozens of women I know who would be aghast at my opinion of “the purpose of life” as stated above. My argument which is shared by a woman I greatly respect, Liz Wolfe, is that the female body is not in a state of balance or wellness if menstruation does not exist during our fertile years. And isn’t whole body (mind included) wellness our goal?

In the Paleo and vegan community, exercise addiction and orthorexia are real problems, which makes me really sad. I’m lucky enough to catch myself before I fell down a rabbit hole of true addiction, dependence, and withdrawal, but I fear that many people won’t reach that level of self-reflection on their own. Community leaders must address this growing concern especially since a large portion of the Paleo population are in the age risk zone for poor body image and disordered eating/exercise. The medical literature already supports the diagnosis of the “Female Athlete Triad” but it is usually only addressed in your PCP’s office without the help of a counselor which is necessary since there’s a huge cognitive component to it. 

The Female Athlete Triad is a group of three signs commonly found in female athletes and over-exercisers that negatively affect overall health: amenorrhea, osteoporosis, and disordered eating. Literature suggests that up to 60% of female athletes experience at least 1 of the symptoms of the Triad. Of great concern is the rapid acceleration of bone density loss in women who do not menstruate, which becomes even more of an issue during menopause. You want to enter your menopausal years with the strongest bones and muscles that you can because osteopenia and sarcopenia are inevitable to some degree. Women with Female Athlete Triad syndrome who are not menstruating (i.e. low concentrations of progesterone and estrogen) lose about 2% bone mass per year, which puts you at an increased risk for developing stress fractures of the long bones, vertebrae, and hips, which are difficult to heal. Disordered eating represents an interesting mental component to the syndrome, and I beg to differ that a family practitioner can effectively address a solution with the patient without recognizing the cognitive role here. While I was never diagnosed with the Triad, my amenorrhea would put me at risk for low bone density which is especially concerning to me as a student of occupational therapy. Fractures are serious medical ailments and the risk of brittle bones was enough to scare me into taking control of my affinity for high intensity exercise.

The purpose of my posts for AIP Balance Week is to bring awareness to a variety of topics that affect women with autoimmune disease that may not be acknowledged much by our community. I knew for years that my over-exercising wasn’t helping my leaky gut or hormonal dysregulation, but I talked myself into daily workouts because “exercise is healthy” and “the more toned you are, the healthier you are”. As Sarah Ballantyne and Stacy Toth so bluntly put it to a group of us, “Health is not measured by weight.” AMEN. Again, I will never be a sedentary sloth… I love to move my body and appreciate what it can do, but I can say that I have achieved balance between exercise and my other hobbies and relationships, and I urge anyone with a similar struggle to do the same. This required weeks and months of changing my habits, forcing myself to skip my workouts and to not feel guilty about less active days. Now, I still do the majority of my work standing and I never sit on the couch to watch TV, but I find these are principles of a healthy active lifestyle and are the true keys to a life of physical wellbeing. I maintain a regular gym schedule (4 days a week versus 7 in the past), but I found that long distance running is my trigger for addictive tendencies, so I allow myself one 3 mile run per week versus my previous 15 miles a week. The cool breeze and feel of the grass under my feet are now relaxing to me and I no longer get that “runner’s high” and rush of dopamine (the addiction neurotransmitter). Mostly, I have enjoyed all the extra time and mental space I have to dedicate to cuddling with my dog, making recipes for G&E, calling friends and family, and freakin’ sleeping in! It has been the loveliest time of my life to date. 

If my experiences remind you of your own, try to slow it down. Give it your best shot for a few months and let yourself have a break. Here are some ideas of activities that are restorative and relaxing. I find them to be the perfect solution for my Type-A, anxious and driven personality, which is a common characteristic among exercisers and competitive athletes. Don’t I sound charming? Yeesh.

  • Yoga: Hatha, Ashtanga, Vinyasa, who cares? Finding yourself in a restricted physical space on your yoga mat without distractions allows your mind to focus and unwind. If you need that sweat of high intensity work outs, find a yoga studio that has hot yoga classes.
  • Walking: Nothing beats walking – it’s free, you can do it in almost any climate, it’s a social or solo-reflective activity, and it’s easy on your body. I find long 60 or 90 minute walks still give my legs the worn-out feeling I would enjoy from a good run. I recently read that for every 5 minutes of running you do, 15 minutes of walking provides the same heart and lung benefits. Replace your 30 minute run with a 90 minute walk, bring your dog, your iPod, or your best friend and enjoy taking it slow. My all-time favorite activity!
  • Meditation: Okay, fine, sitting as still as you can doesn’t burn much in the way of calories, but that’s the exact reason why you are doing this. Take your mind off calories, performance, or waist circumference. Reflect on what you REALLY care about – likely your friends, family, career ambitions, and health. Or don’t think about anything at all. My go-to meditation chant is “Just Be.” I say it over and over to myself and soon find my head buzzing in this lovely, empty way. My sympathetic nervous system always thanks me for giving it this 5-20 minute break.
  • Gentle Swimming: There’s freedom in letting yourself be engulfed by the weightlessness of water. Splash around in a pool, go for slow strokes in a lake, or do some focused laps at your gym. Swimming is easy on your body like walking and can be quite therapeutic for people with arthritic joints, muscle inflammation, or emotional stress. 

Oh boy, that was a tough post to write. But how else do you become a better, stronger person if you don’t look at yourself in the mirror and tell it like it is. I saved the best post for last tomorrow: Body Image and Disordered Eating. I don’t know a female who hasn’t experienced this… and it makes me want to blow up every magazine and celerity TV show out there. 

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