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Strength training helped me overcome my fear of weight gain

By Camille Beredjick

Content warning: This issue includes discussion of eating disorders.

I first met my personal trainer, Adam, on a hot Monday in August at Paramount Chicago, a gym near my apartment. He pushed some buttons on a treadmill and asked me to step on as a warm-up. I took long, determined strides as he asked me questions about my fitness regimen and goals.

I told Adam what I was looking to get out of personal training: Increased strength, better posture and flexibility, and the ability to open jars of marinara sauce without asking my wife for help. I purposely did not say that I wanted to lose weight.

“Is there anything else I need to know as we start working together?” Adam asked.

I took a deep breath and told him the biggest challenge I’d faced in my fitness journey: I was in recovery from an eating disorder, and it had severely affected my relationship with exercise. When my eating disorder was at its peak seven or eight years prior, I over-exercised and under-ate to the point of illness. It was important to me that we not set weight loss as a goal, I told Adam. Otherwise, I might slip back into old habits.

When I moved to Chicago last July, I vowed to shift my relationship to exercise and begin working out more mindfully. I thought that regular personal training sessions would be a worthwhile investment in my wellness. Even better, the sessions offered at my local gym would focus on weight training—something I struggled to do by myself, and an intentional shift from focusing on cardio, which could be tricky for my brain to navigate.

Adam nodded thoughtfully and thanked me for sharing. I let him know that I was working with a therapist, and he asked me to be honest with him about how I was feeling so we could adjust our routines accordingly. The pandemic had been tough; I was feeling pretty low about my body, and I was nervous about whether I might start over-exercising again. I told Adam all of this, and he listened.

But there was one thing I didn’t tell Adam in our first conversation. Secretly, I was hoping that personal training would lead to me losing weight.

It’s well known that exercise is good for your physical and mental health, but the psychological benefits of weight training were new to me. Studies have indicated that weight training has significant mental health benefits, namely alleviating depression and lifting mood. Other research suggests that lifting weights might specifically support eating disorder recovery by helping people recognize their strength and power at any size. I looked forward to seeing what my body was capable of, and how it might help my brain, too.

I’ve had an up-and-down relationship with exercise throughout my life. I used to be a zealous gym-goer; when I worked out of an office in downtown Manhattan, I went to the gym after work for an hour at a time, several times a week, every single week. I had a particular weakness for cardio, and often stayed on the treadmill or elliptical long enough that I felt like I was going to collapse.

Circumstances changed during the pandemic, as gyms were among the first venues to shut down. At home, I started running around the park regularly, masked and socially distanced but committed to moving my body no matter what. Even though I was already in recovery, I noticed my old, disordered ways of thinking coming back in those early pandemic days. Without my old workday routines, I was terrified that I might gain weight—the driving fear behind my decade-old eating disorder. Internalized fatphobia is treacherous, and mine made me exercise myself sick again.

Eventually, my running routine dried up. Summer came and went, a cold New York winter arrived, and as it became clear that COVID wasn’t going anywhere, my mental health tanked. I exercised less frequently and gained some weight, something I struggled with. I knew objectively that gaining weight isn’t a bad thing, and, in fact, it showed that I was allowing myself to eat more freely as opposed to restricting, another old habit brought on by my illness. But still, the eating disorder in the back of my mind told me that I should try to lose the weight I’d put on, and that I better not gain any more.

When we moved from New York to Chicago the following summer, I told myself I’d use the opportunity for a fresh start. I found a therapist who specialized in eating disorder recovery and started learning more about intuitive eating. And when I walked by the gym for the first time and saw an ad for personal training services, I decided to go for it.

The early days of training were rough. I didn’t have the arm or ab strength to do a single push-up. I could bench merely the weight of the bar itself. When Adam asked me to do some lunges across the length of the gym, my wobbly strides were so awkward-looking, I’m pretty sure some other patrons turned their heads to watch.

But I got stronger. Each week I could lift heavier weights, hold planks for longer, and work my way closer to the ground in a move resembling a push-up. Surely, I thought, this strengthening of my body was helping me lose weight, too.

I was wrong. As my body got stronger, it got bigger, too. My arms swelled with the strength of eventually benching half my body weight; as the muscles in my butt got tighter, my jeans did, too. At first I was confused by what was happening to my body. I wasn’t using very heavy weights, and I had heard from magazines and weight-loss gossip of the early 2000s that repetitions with lighter weights would lead to toned, slender limbs, not bulky ones. I wondered if I had failed.

My eating disorder—as well as society’s staggering fatphobia—has conditioned me to think that a bigger body is always a worse body, an incapable body. It’s this harmful and ignorant take that perpetuates disordered habits like those I’ve been battling for upwards of ten years.

It’s been life-changing to realize firsthand that this is absolutely not true: I have realized, slowly but surely, that taking up space is not a bad thing. I feel stronger and more capable today, in my bigger body, than I did a year ago. And it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t trained my body to exercise in a new-to-me way.

I stopped working with Adam a couple of weeks ago, feeling ready to move on to more self-guided exercise. I miss running, the weather’s nice again, and I feel more capable of leading my own exercise in a safe, healthy way. He totally supported my decision, and I have his number at the ready if I ever want to train together again.

But to be clear, I did not emerge from personal training as a completely new person. Even now, my stamina leaves much to be desired. I can still only do half of a push-up, though that’s miles ahead of where I was a year ago. Recovery takes time, so I still struggle with some disordered thoughts about my body. But more than ever, I am learning that my body’s shape and size have nothing to do with its worth. With every lunge, I’m taking a step not just toward opening my own jars, but toward self-acceptance, too.

If you or someone you know might be struggling with an eating disorder, reach out to the National Eating Disorders Association hotline, or seek out an evidence-based treatment care team.

A deal!

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