I am always asked the question, "Why do you like running?" More recently I’ve also been getting the question, “How can I make myself like running?” The first question is not an easy one in itself, and although I know in every cell of mine that I absolutely love it, I still find myself at a loss for words when I have to come up with an answer. However, the second one puzzles me beyond compare and I normally find my reply peppered with incomprehensible giggles because I actually have no idea how to formulate a response. Since I find that I often express myself better in writing, I will attempt to use this post to organize my thoughts (though I can’t exactly promise full lucidity…)
I am fully aware that the motion of picking your legs up over and over again is a monotonous one for many people. The burning lungs, legs, and indeed every part of the body cannot ever be described as “pleasant” in anyone’s books, so I usually disregard using any physical references in the initial portion of my explanation.
Instead, I usually begin with comparing it to something that I know the other person loves, whether it be singing, dancing or playing an instrument. At the end of the day, it comes down to the feelings. Most of these deep core feelings are a product of familial influence, while some are cultivated through undergoing profound experiences. Either way, this course of maturation is best described with the phrase “to each their own”, or the fact that the development of interests is unique to every person.
However, these emotions can never be forced. Just as it is impossible that I will ever learn to like, let alone be good at ball games, one cannot simply be made to love running. A person can pretend to enjoy it for a short period of time for the sake of achieving another goal (impressing someone, getting fit), but because joy is not made a priority in any of these cases, the enjoyment becomes extremely short lived. The only way a love for something can be durable is if it IS the reason you dedicate time to an activity: while side effects are definitely attractive, nothing has quite the same holding power as pure passion for the actual activity does.
I once tried to make myself like basketball when my parents told me that it would help me grow taller. You would think that the incentive to grow a few inches might be a strong enough motivation to make a vertically challenged individual like myself want to play basketball every day for hours on end. But even though I would show up faithfully for training every week and stay for the full 2 hours, I found myself checking my watch every few minutes and hating that the time dragged on so slowly. Worst of all, because I had no real interest in playing, I didn't take the initiative to practice outside of training time, and hence I did not improve. And stagnancy, guys and girls, is the most deadly thing that can happen in the process of pursuing something. When you lose the motivation to push for something, or never had it in the first place, you get stuck in a time warp, a hamster wheel, where you are turning in endless circles and suffering but never going anywhere. To put it bluntly, you are wasting time.
I’ve seen people in the gym on the treadmill with a newspaper spread open in front of them and earphones plugged in, looking like they would rather be anywhere than there. They zone out from the activity at hand, looking for ways to distract themselves from the pain, then get off the treadmill when “the time is up”, relieved that they have fulfilled their “duties.” These are the moments when I want to ask, “Duties prescribed by who?”
I'm not encouraging you to give up when things get hard or when you get bored, but I am suggesting that if you view running as a mortal enemy and dread it like you dread owning up after you accidentally broke your mom’s antique Venetian vase, you should probably stop. This is probably surprising to hear, but if I believe anything, I believe that pursuits in life, whether it be playing a sport, playing an instrument or beginning a project, must originate from passion, be carried out with joy and continued with perseverance. This is an inclusive cycle, meaning that it will crumble if it lacks even one segment. If you had no zeal to begin with, you will not seek to improve, and without the incentive of progress, you will never experience accomplishment, and therefore you will not be stimulated to continue.
I can say with quite a high degree of certainty that one’s relationship with running, and indeed any sport, is either one of love or one of hate (kind of like whether or not you like durian :P), and rarely any in-betweens. This is because the only reason that people can stick to an activity that causes them pain at times is because it keeps giving back. That’s just how humans work - we are egged on my rewards and only commit when we can see that our efforts are paying off. We are hardly ever willing to sacrifice if we know that we will not receive acknowledgement or results in return.
If you get one message from this post, I hope that it was something along the lines of “I should be doing something I love.” Just because a lot of people enjoy an activity doesn’t mean that you must. Even if your goal is “just to get fit” doesn’t mean that you have to sacrifice your happiness to achieve it, and the two NEVER have to be mutually exclusive. You have to remember that although mental health doesn’t have the same concrete measurement as physical health, the mental drive is what will ultimately preserve your determination and is definitely equally, if not more, important.
For those of you who are unhappy with the answer above (“but you said that the love for running can be developed!”) and seek to keep trying to find that vigor for running, my best advice is to stay present. Take out the earphones, stop watching cartoons and heck, get off the treadmill and go find a trail. Stop trying to distract yourself and stop thinking of running as a torturous activity. Yes, that means feeling the screaming of the muscles and the sharp shortness of the breath, but it also means feeling the wind brushing across your face and the breeze combing through your hair and the liberal cycling of the legs and the sturdiness of the ground as it passes beneath your feet. Enjoyment is a bed of roses: it is luxurious and beautiful, but it is also populated with thorns. In the end, it is up to you to decide whether you would really be able to ignore the thorns enough to revel in the roses...
A word of warning before you start reading: this post may drown you with clichés and cause you to experience the "chicken pox skin" sensation that usually occurs when award speeches about how people succeeded because they "believed in themselves" and "never gave up" are delivered. *Cue shudder* But I'm not here to give you an empty pep talk and I promise that the clichés I use will (hopefully) have their significance in expressing something.
My friend once said to me, “If you keep telling yourself that you suck, you will always suck.” In other words, if you keep believing that you can’t do it, you really won’t be able to.
“She just broke her promise - that’s such a meaningless cliché”, you might be thinking, “This is the ‘believe in yourself’ talk all over again.” And that’s exactly what I thought – I simply didn’t buy the concept that the mind could, at any point, take charge over the powerful and mysterious rein of the body.
But my eating disorder changed that. My mind assumed royalty as it ignored my body’s pleas to feed it, to stop hurting it, to let it rest. The dreams that had seemed so achievable and that I was so excited about moved more and more out of reach as the noise of the media and my surroundings seeped into my brain, adding on to an ever-expanding list of expectations. This was no “to-do list”, where I could easily tick off items and feel accomplished afterwards. This was a list of demands, where I had to finish a given list of items before I could feel release - a feeling that would only last until I realized that it was almost time to start worrying about what I would have to do the next day. What I once did for the sole sake of passion became a never-ending quest to please my mind, the influence of which I had so underestimated.
You might be amazed to hear that in the midst of all this mental and physical torture, I thought that I was doing something good for myself. I had always been taught to reach for the stars and to keep going until I had collected not one, but a bag full of the glittering gems that we granted our wishes upon. In restraining my whims, forcing myself to work my body to the point of exhaustion and even controlling my basic human desires such as eating felt like success to a girl who had heard from so many magazines and TV shows that in order to be "healthy and fit", she had to "stay focused", "train hard" and "count calories."
I wanted to be everything every magazine suggested would lead me to the "perfect body" and "a happy life" - but instead of following just one meal plan or one exercise routine at a time, I tried to follow every single piece of advice I read or heard about, and ignored all the parts that I didn't want to listen to. This meant that I did the HIIT workout from one magazine, as well as the swim intervals from another, plus the toning workout from the third magazine all in one day fuelled by nothing more than a protein shake because I had learned from the fourth magazine that ingesting protein (and no fat or carbohydrate) was the only way to get lean (disregarding that the magazine only said to follow the plan for 1 week, of course). In a world where extremities were the only choice, I had it ingrained in my head that the more I did, the better the results.
But the body is not a machine. The way it works cannot be calculated by simple math - eating less calories does not necessarily mean that you’ll get skinnier faster, nor does doing more exercise necessarily mean that you’ll get fitter faster. The body has a mind of its own - it needs to be pleased before it will do what you want it to do. You can follow guidelines that support the general well-being of the body, but you simply have to go by feeling to appease your own body’s unique desires.
Going by feeling is definitely easier said than done, and to this moment I still cannot claim that I can do it. I can kind of tell when my body is annoyed and what kinds of signals raise red flags, but it is often still very difficult for me to determine the solution to the problem. What I can say for sure though is that there is no universal formula to “the perfect body” let alone “the perfect life.” Just because the skinny actress of TV looks is photographed smiling like she is having the time of her life doesn’t mean that she isn’t sometimes plagued with self doubt. In all honesty, YOU, my friend, not the svelte model nor the flawless actress, are the true lucky one. While they are pressured to look good and have to hide their insecurities all whilst tabloids and the paparazzi mercilessly attempt to poke them out for public discussion, YOU have the luxury of choice, of feeling good on your journey to whatever you are aiming for.
I am in no way saying that I enjoyed having an eating disorder, but I can say with certainty that I learned invaluable lessons from it and acquired life skills that I would otherwise have missed. I think that can be said for every obstacle that we overcome in life and is embodied in the saying "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger." The determination that once meant blindly stringent control transformed into a zest for my sports and life in general - the tight hold that I had on my goals that had once been a hazard to my life became the mental drive that powered me through the sprint finish of a race even when my legs were burning and that kept me awake during a particularly boring topic in math class.
I finally saw that I had been reaching for the sun instead of the stars all along - and like Icarus, had been put to shame by challenging an omnipotent power.
Sorry if you have been reduced to a shuddering mess due to my use of clichés, but I hope that you kind of understood what I've been getting at. And when you actually think about it, aren't clichés only cliché because they were repeated so many times? And if something was repeated so many times, it MUST mean something, at least to some of us, right? Maybe I really should be using the them more mercilessly from now on...
Hello world! I'm Steph, and I am an aspiring clinical psychologist, avid advocate for eating disorder awareness, and bubbly human being :)