How running transformed my body image

The idea of living a “healthy” lifestyle has always been a mystery to me. It’s overwhelming to think of all the changes that have to be made, in both mind and body, to be your best self. Even then, between all the programs and ideas out there (eating whole foods, Paleo, vegan, high carb, low carb, etc.), I’m constantly questioning what the “right” way is. When I was eight or nine, it became painfully obvious my long legs and small frame couldn’t hold all the weight I’d started gaining. With an early onset of puberty, my body changed before I knew what to do with it and along with that weight and hormonal spikes, whatever self-esteem and confidence I had disappeared. No matter what I did to try and look past my changes, I was uncomfortable in my own skin. Not only was the weight not conducive to physical activity in and out of school, but it felt like a hindrance on the young woman I wanted to, and knew I could, become.

I used to turn to food for comfort because at the time, I didn’t know how to cope or process all the feelings that come with growing up. In my early teens, at a time when I just wanted to be accepted and find my place in school and the world, I stopped turning to food and instead, avoided it completely. My weight dropped but inside, I felt empty. I know now, it really wasn’t about the food at all. The older I got, the more my weight fluctuated between the two extremes — way up or way down. Neither extreme really changed my perception of who I was as a person and neither brought me an ounce of happiness or joy.

The peak of the weight came after my two pregnancies. During both, I developed severe hypertension and put to mandatory bed rest until deliveries. I had difficulty breathing. My joints were swollen. The low point was almost losing my life and my second born, because the extra weight (combined with a few of my other health issues) labeled me high risk. I didn’t realize all the harm I’d done to my body until it was almost too late. Somewhere along the way, I lost control of my life and had no idea how to get it back.

After I gave birth the second time, when I noticed I still couldn’t wear anything but maternity pants some eight months later, I still hadn’t had my moment of clarity. Then, one day, on a daily walk to the local donut shop, I realized I was running late. I had to hurry so my husband could leave for work. There was no way I could make it — unless I ran. If I wanted the donuts bad enough, I declared, that’s what I’d have to do — and so I did it. I ran, and I hated every second of it. Every. Second.

A funny thing happened on the way back from the shop. Once I caught my breath and took a bite of the pastry, I suddenly didn’t want it as much and instead of walking back as I normally would, I ran home to toss the donut in the garbage. This was the moment I’d had enough. I wanted to feel good about myself from the inside out. In that short run, I realized the way it made feel: like I could do anything. I wanted to feel that way all the time.

So the next day, I threw on my old, grungy shoes, a pair of sweats, and ran again. It was still terrible and I had no idea what I was doing in terms of breathing or pace. I gasped and a few times, cried. It was really hard. I wasn’t athletic ever before, but this only added to my resolve. I started with a few blocks and gradually increased to a few miles. It became my new hobby; researching training plans and local races gave me a positive goal. Of course, it didn’t heal all my food woes, and I still had to work at trying to make healthier choices, but it was one small thing I promised I would continue to do for myself. Eventually, my body began to change in ways it never had before. I now have muscles and definition. I am strong. It’s something I never thought I’d be, and now I see that having a positive body image for myself is the only way I can show my daughter what it means to be strong. I want to show her how important positive body image is and how it connects with her self-esteem.

The days I run, I am a better wife, mother, and friend. Now, I actually don’t hate every second and run 5 days a week; I have run dozens of races, with distances from 5k to 30k under my belt. In the time since that first run, four years ago, I’ve found something in running I couldn’t find anywhere else. Like a bird with new wings, it gave me a freedom I’d been searching for all my life. And that’s worth all the donuts in the world.

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