Content warning: This piece discusses sexual violence.
I imagine that many people assume that those of us who work in fitness are always in peak physical form. That we’ve never struggled to find the motivation to work out. I myself thought as much years ago when I was first getting into the field. After all, I was in great shape, and almost all of my classmates who were also studying exercise science were athletes of various sports.
I began my fitness career directly out of college, after I graduated with a BS in kinesiology while competing on the D1 cross-country and track-and-field teams at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. I moved to New York City and began personal training while working on my masters degree in exercise science and nutrition. Although my humility would encourage me to say otherwise, I will admit that I was the epitome of strength and physical prowess. I was an extremely successful competitive distance runner, running 3:01:02 in the New York City Marathon and 1:20:19 in the New York City Half Marathon. Most of all, I absolutely loved working out and making my body stronger, fitter, and faster.
I was personal training full-time at a boutique studio, ARC Athletics, under the mentorship of an extremely knowledgeable and supportive athletic trainer, Gene Schafer. He taught me so much about the fundamentals of fitness training that you just can’t learn in the classroom. I thoroughly enjoyed putting in long hours, working with a diverse range of clients while simultaneously spending quite a bit of my own time training as much as possible, running, lifting weights, and doing all sorts of cross training.
I was at the peak of my physical conditioning, and although I’m extremely petite–not quite 5’1″ when I stand up with perfect posture–I felt strong and confident in my body. I could bang out sets of nearly 55 pushups in a minute. I could bench press nearly as much as I weighed. And I could run 10 miles feeling quite relaxed, clipping along at under 6:30 minutes per mile. This fitness was a huge part of my career, lifestyle, and most of all, my identity. Eventually, I decided to begin working with clients as an independent trainer so that I could schedule sessions around my own training.
Several months after branching out on my own, I suffered a brutal attack. In addition to being raped, I sustained lasting injuries that, nearly a decade later, still affect my ability to perform certain exercises and everyday functions. But, perhaps surprisingly, the most significant fallout from the attack was the ripple effect it had on my life as an athlete.
I’d taken so much pride in my physical strength, and believed that all of the many hours I spent training was a valuable investment that was making me a better athlete and healthy person, and strong and confident in my own skin.
All of that was shattered in 15 minutes. I saw how defenseless I really was, and it made me feel like a complete sham. For years after the attack, I had absolutely no desire to spend even a single minute lifting weights or working out. Not only was I physically unable to exercise for months due to my injuries, but my entire attitude toward exercise made a complete reversal. If I wasn’t even strong enough to defend my own body against a single perpetrator, what was the point of working out so much? I couldn’t possibly be strong if I was so disgustingly violated.
Looking back, I can now see the obvious flaws in my reasoning. My attacker had a knife, and fighting against the strength of a man who was about 100 pounds heavier than me and armed with a weapon was always going to be a losing battle. Even if I was able to do 56 push-ups in a minute rather than 55, or bench press my full weight instead of 10 pounds shy, or run 10 miles at 6:15 pace rather than 6:30, it would not have prevented the same horrific outcome. But trauma is a bully, and it can skew your reasoning.
I fully blamed myself and, specifically, my lack of strength for what happened. As the weeks and months wore on, I became less and less interested in ever returning to exercise again. What was the point?
I will be the first to admit that I didn’t properly address the trauma that I was dealing with. I did some therapy, but the complex PTSD I was diagnosed with just continued to get worse. Eventually I gave up, hoping that if I stopped trying to think or talk about what happened, it would go away.
About nine months after the attack, I finally got back to running at a much more casual, low level compared to what I had been previously doing. Instead of running 60 miles per week, I was doing 10. Instead of a 6:30 pace, I was struggling to trudge along at an 8:45 pace.
Moreover, I had zero interest in training seriously, and I found that running was still extremely painful because of the scars from my injuries. It killed me to see how far I had fallen in my abilities. I longed for my old self, my pre-“ruined” body. I gave up on personal training entirely, and took my career in a different direction, having absolutely no desire to set foot in a gym or work with anyone to improve their fitness when I had lost all of my own.
It killed me to see how far I had fallen in my abilities.
I was going through the motions of my new life, but suffering every single day, replaying violent flashbacks of the trauma. I spent the better part each night awake, haunted by memories of what had happened. Most of all, I absolutely hated my body both in terms of what it now looked and felt like, but also for letting me down and allowing such a violation to happen in the first place. I even took showers with the lights off so that I wouldn’t have to look at myself.
I felt lost, with no idea how I was going to find confidence and happiness again. Although our bodies do not define us, coming from a place where my fitness really did play such an important role in my self-worth (as well as my career!), not feeling good about how I looked or felt physically absolutely polluted how I felt emotionally.
At this point, I still suffer from some amount of C-PTSD and I have constant physical pain from some of my injuries. Yet over the past couple of years, I’ve taken tremendous strides towards healing. I’ve fully realized that my trauma was not my fault, nor was it a product of being “too weak.” And, I’ve started working out with more intention again.
At the end of last year, I decided to take on a 30-day push-up challenge, which forced me back into strength training, at least with basic bodyweight exercises. Over the course of a month, I worked my way up to 61 push-ups, re-instilling a sense of confidence in my strength along the way. Seeing that progress made me excited about the potential to build back my fitness. It had seemed so far gone that I’d lost all motivation to even try working out with a goal in mind.
I know that I’ll probably never again be where I was at the peak of my physical fitness, but letting go of my emotional hang-ups surrounding exercise has been a tremendous weight lifted off of my back. I can see that, as I am slowly building back my strength, I am also repairing my shattered confidence in my body–and in myself. This isn’t to say that the road is all smooth. I’ve already had plenty of days where I look in the mirror, and my eyes immediately focus on my scars and the changes in the shape of my body. I think to myself, “What’s the point of working out? You’re weak. You’re not fast anymore. Your body is broken.”
As I am slowly building back my strength, I am also repairing a shattered confidence in my body.
Although I truly hope that other people do not personally resonate with the particulars of my own story, so many of us have suffered some type of trauma, illness, injury, life change, emotional burden, or other difficulty that has caused us to fall out of our fitness routine. Before we know it, it’s been months (or years) since we’ve been consistently working out. Getting back on the proverbial horse only gets more daunting with time. Seeing a way back to your previous level of fitness can seem so untenable that it’s easier to just bury your head and forgo working out altogether.
But there’s more to exercise than getting “in shape.” Even a little bit of movement every day can make your body feel better and make you feel happier. Like a snowball rolling down a mountain, you can gain momentum in your workout routine as you slowly do more and more.
In my own journey back to being in shape, I try to tell myself the following:
As you get physically stronger, you become more confident in your ability to regain your fitness. As you get physically stronger, you are reminded how good it feels to be active. As you get physically stronger, you will realize that you are worth it and that you deserve to feel good and be healthy.
My approach is to allow my comeback to fitness to triumph over my trauma and the challenges I have faced. One day at a time, I am reclaiming my body, reclaiming my life, and reminding myself that I deserve to feel good.