The Spiritual Implications of Changing My Workout Routine

Welcome to a stream of consciousness post where I process and share at the same time.

So, that title is kinda tongue in cheek, but also kinda not.

It’s clearly no secret that i have really struggled to reach my fitness/ fat loss goals the past four years since my sweet Baby Duck was born, despite working very hard and very consistently pretty much the entire time. I’ve made many tiny tweaks and major changes. I’ve tried to replicate my “golden age of fitness” from 2013-2014. I’ve counted calories, tried to limit my carbs to a certain amount, increased fat and protein, worked out harder and harder, done more cardio, done less cardio, more cardio again…I’ve tried just about everything. I’ve seen short bursts of temporary progress, but something always happens to undo the tiny progress I make. I don’t feel, cumulatively, any better, physically, and certainly not in body confidence, than I did when Ducky was a newborn. I am, in reality, down about 2-3 pant sizes, depending on the day, but after all this work, for all this time, I should have reached my size/fat loss goals a long time ago. I’m sitting here fighting tears, because it just doesn’t make any sense.

All the frustration and description above can also easily apply to my mental and emotional health too. I’ve been struggling and treading water with what at least feels like only tiny amounts of progress the past four years, and many setbacks. I have tried almost everything. I’m exhausted, discouraged, and, a lot of the time, downright hopeless that I’ll ever feel like myself again across the board.

I feel like I’ve gone to work faithfully every day for four years with only a few vacations, and I’m still waiting for the paycheck I’ve earned. If you were not getting paid for the work you were doing, you absolutely would not keep going to that job. And yet I have. I’ve not given up, no matter how discouraged I’ve gotten, or how stuck I’ve felt. I’m proud of that, at least. I refuse to be defeated by this, though, and I refuse to believe this is just the body I’m meant to live in, and the way it’s supposed to feel, both physically and mentally.

I’ve written before about what worked for me in the past, in regards to fitness and weight loss, and how I’ve tried to replicate that, and it just has not worked. Just like everyone has different needs for food and exercise, our bodies have different needs in different seasons, so first, I need to stop looking backwards. I also need to not look to the side and compare to what’s working for others, because there’s nothing productive in that either. I have to start from where I am and figure a way forward.

You guys, I’m watching *Christopher Robin* with my kids while I write, and Pooh just said “Sometimes the thing to do is nothing.” annnnd cue the water works. Rest is a big part of what I need, I think we established that, long ago. I don’t believe the answer is to just do nothing, but, the answer is also not restrict, control, and grind myself into a paste.

The answer is balance. That much I have learned in the past four years- balance in all things. But where to begin? Maybe Pooh had the answer to that.

I believe all of (the physical side of) this began with 40 hours of labor and very little rest to follow it. I probably didn’t sleep more than an hour or two in a stretch for the first 4-5 months of Ducky’s life, and the rest I got was always laced with fear. I literally knew something wasn’t right with me within a few hours of his birth, but I assumed i would just get some sleep and I’d be fine. Then came anxiety about his nursing, a wastewater flood in our apartment, Scott having the flu, and on and on with new things to be afraid of. The anxiety built and built and I lost the ability to rest entirely. Consequently, my mental health has deteriorated along with my physical well being. The more I learn about health and fitness, as well as about mental health, the more I see the importance of rest. I might even go so far as to say it’s the most important piece of my wellness puzzle.

So, how do I fix this, without making rest into another pass/fail exhausting job? It would, considering my personality, be very easy to make it into a big long list of things to *do*, which would further perpetuate my exhaustion in the name of recovery- as well as setting me up to “fail” because I can’t keep up with all of it. I have to choose the most important and impactful changes to make.

  • Consistent (earlier) bedtime: this one is obvious, but also possibly the hardest, because Scott and I need our down time together, but going to bed is the absolute fundamental building block to rest. So, this is nonnegotiable.
  • Meditation/restorative yoga: I have not tracked it specifically, but I am fairly sure that these practices make a big difference in my stress level and therefore the quality of my rest and sleep. I am going to aim for a ten minute meditation with my calm app every morning, and at least 10-15 minutes of restorative yoga poses to reduce cortisol right before sleep at night. Hopefully I can convince Scott to turn the TV off early each night.
  • Supplements: I have gotten better at being consistent with these, and dialed in the ones that make the biggest difference; calcium, magnesium, vitamin d, turmeric, vitamin C, and omegas. A lot of these I get in my diet, but from all the learning I have done about chronic inflammation, in times of stress and recovery from stress, our body burns through a lot more of them. So at least for the forseeable future, I will take them in supplement form as well. I am also taking CBD oil sublingually and looking for my best dose of that.
  • Naps: here’s a tricky one. Right now, I’m still exhausted all the time, and my nighttime sleep is very broken at times, and I still wake in the morning terrified from the get go. This last thing starts my day depleted from recovering from the panic, so right now, I need a nap most days. It’s tricky, because, if I nap too late or too long, I might be sabotaging my sleep that night, but if I don’t nap at all, I might be increasing my sleep debt and therefore the stress on my body and mind. so, to start with, I’m going to try to start my nap as early as I can, and gradually shorten it until I have recovered enough that I can make it an occasional thing as needed- and finally get my afternoons back to use for fun things! Here are my Action Steps:
    • in bed to nap by 3pm. Set alarm to wake NLT 5:15PM
    • instead of 5:15, set a timer for one hour once I start to drift off ( sometimes it takes a bit).
    • 45 minutes
    • 30 minutes
    • as needed nap up to 90 min.

I am hopeful that, with consistency and commitment in those few areas, none of which is going to be yet another thing on my list to take time away, I can make real progress in recovery.

The next piece of my wellness puzzle, and, honestly, the one I have pretty much figured out, is nutrition. I have taken all the things i have leaned about nutrition in general, and for my body and health conditions in particular, and the principles of Intuitive Eating, and found a really good balance. It would be very unhealthy for me to track anything with the idea of limiting what I eat by macros, carb counting, calorie counting, etc. Anything that is a diet with rules and limits and “can’t haves” is a nope for me. However, I do know what foods serve my body best, and am learning more and more about honoring and listening to my hunger cues, and the best ways to respond to them. It’s actually pretty rare that I am staaaaarving, so when that happens, I probably need to pay attention. Here are some of the things I’ve learned work best for my body over the past 7-8 years and how I incorporate them into my nutritional lifestyle:

  • Sweets, breads, and pastas are not off limits, but need to be pretty occasional for me. I feel nasty after eating too much of any of these things- though once in awhile is not a big deal. Your body responds and adapts to what you give it regularly, so if, like me this past holiday season, you polish off a pecan pie and a half over 3 days, it might take awhile to stop craving more and more sugar. An example solution: I can bake a pan of our favorite brownies, but freeze them in individual servings and defrost as needed for a treat. I probably have a “real dessert” like this maybe twice a month. More regularly, maybe once a week, Scott and I share a dark chocolate bar that is 60% cacao or more.
  • I plan all my meals for the week (and prep as much as i can ahead) except weekend breakfast and lunch, because Scott likes to do something special on weekend mornings, and I can use lunches to balance out the nutritional gaps. Ha! Planning and prepping makes everything easier because I’m not prowling around hungry and making less than ideal decisions. I’m getting past some OCD stuff about food prep, but as that happens, planning and prepping will get even easier and more fun.
  • Flexible Carb Cycling : the “flexible” part is key to doing this and still eating intuitively. It basically means that most days I get most of my nutrition from fat and protein, and my carbs from veggies and maybe a little fruit, and a couple days a week I incorporate a starchy carb (oatmeal, potato, sweet potato, rice, quinoa) into all three meals and probably eat a little more fruit. Ideally I will match these days to my heavier/more intense workout days-more on that in a bit. This is a piece I took from my Paleo experience 5-6 years ago and kinda refreshed within the past year. back in that “golden age” I ate oatmeal for breakfast most days, but i only ate starchy stuff at lunch and dinner on days i went to spin class and when we went to sushi for lunch on Saturdays sometimes.
  • I keep healthy snack options around. extra protein, like canned fish, hard boiled eggs, cottage cheese, greek yogurt, lots of veggies, hummus, and rice cakes (with or without peanut butter). On a higher carb day I might also have a banana. Bananas are really high in sugar, but they also have a lot of good anti-inflammatory stuff in them, so like everything else… moderation.
  • I do some very very gentle intermittent fasting, basically trying not to eat anything after dinner most nights, and eating breakfast at least an hour after I wake. This is something I’ll be examining as I adjust to my new routine in the next section, though, because fueling my workouts properly is paramount to keeping the stress levels low in my body.

The next major puzzle piece is… dun dun duuuunnnn… exercise. This is probably the area that is the least straightforward and intuitive for me, for a number of reasons. First, I have gotten sustainable long term results in the past with a few different approaches that worked great in their season but less effectively years later. When I was 20 I lost weight with an hour of cardio and 20 min pilates 5 days a week. When I was 23, I did 30-60m of workout dvds and 1-2 cardio sessions a day at the gym 6 days a week. When I was 29 (this is when I fell in love with fitness and not just trying to lose weight) I was at the gym 16 hours a week lifting weights ( machine circuit), taking 3 spin classes a week, swimming, walking and taking four yoga classes a week-then I got pregnant with Ladybug and gained 25 more lbs after she was born because I was eating allll the food from breastfeeding hunger and the antidepressants I was on. So, then when i was 30-31 I lost 70 lbs with the simple routine of 35 min jillian michaels 4 days a week, 45-60 min walk 5-6 days a week, and two 60 minute spin classes a week. This was my golden age, and though I was counting/tracking my calories, it was mostly to make sure I ate enough on the days I went to spin class. I tried to replicate that over and over the past few years, and at one point I felt it was working pretty well, but then I weaned Baby Duck and hit my biggest mental health trigger and since then I have not gotten any lasting results.

I’m finally done trying to replicate that “golden age”, because, almost 5 years after getting pregnant with Ducky, I can accept that this body needs to be cared for in a different way. That said, I found a lot of security in my HIIT and Cycle centered fitness routine. I had a friend even tell me that maybe I should do less HIIT/Jillian, that maybe that long a HIIT workout was overtraining when combined with everything else, and I panicked! I couldn’t let go of the one thing I was *sure* would work. I’ve been similar with my cycling. I LOVE my Peloton bike and classes, and for my mental health they are my medicine on a chemical neurological level. However, they might have been also driving me further into the ground with exhaustion. I didn’t realize it because I was having so much fun, and i was going off momentum, but I realized this fall that even as hard as I was training, I’d stopped seeing performance improvements. then, when, after a few weeks off during the holidays, I tried to get back on the bike, I had lost so much strength that I struggled to get through a normal 20 minute class. WHAAAAAAT? just a handful of weeks earlier I’d been doing one to two full length classes a day! I had read a lot about how people who have chronic inflammation in general, and also specifically PCOS and adrenal fatigue, maybe shouldn’t do much high intensity exercise. That’s tricky for me, because that endorphin burst is my daily dose of medication, and the only proven alternative to pharmaceuticals when combined with meditation. I need it. But I also need to heal my body from four years of constant stress. Conundrum.

It’s been about a month since my last ride and I hate that, but I think I needed the break, though I also think it’s affected my mental health too, not getting that regular endorphin rush. It’s been needed time to figure some things out, though. I’ve thought through and even tried a bunch of different angles and options the past six weeks or so, and realized that I needed to back way off everything and maybe even let go of some of the things i believed were nonnegtiable. I had to stop thinking in terms of calorie deficits and number crunching and instead focus on what I need to do to feel like myself again, and recognize that there is a difference. I needed to ask myself what I really want and create a plan to build myself in that direction and not waste time and precious energy doing things I don’t need to because I thought I had to in order to ensure success.

Here’s where the title of this essay comes into play. I have a really hard time letting go of control, because I don’t really trust anyone to care for me, look out for my best interests, keep me safe, support my goals- even God. I’m not going to go into the reasons for that here, but it’s something that I’ve become increasingly aware of and am really working through. This need to control, manage, etc. often leads to me doing the most to “ensure” my desired outcome. That applies here too- I don’t trust God or my body to tell me what’s best, so I restrict, I control, I do ALL the exercise at full bore to make sure there’s no way I’m not creating a deficit, and it’s calories in, calories out, right? So whyyyy isn’t it working? Well, because doing the most has broken me. I need to, just like in other areas of my life, do just what is “normal and reasonable” and trust God with the rest. I need to simplify and scale back my intensity to match my actual goals.

What do i really want from my exercise?

  • First, let’s be totally honest. I want my belly smaller. I can accept that it may never look like Jillian Michaels or an instagram model, but I really want there to be less of it. I don’t think that’s either wrong or impossible.
  • I want to see more definition in my muscles. I want my body to look like I work out as consistently as I do.
  • I want to see consistent performance improvement. In cycling, i want to hit PR’s, I want to be able to add more resistance, and keep up with the instructor’s cues. In strength training I want to be able to lift more, do more push ups with better form, and I want to be able to do pull ups. In yoga, I want to be able to do poses I currently can’t and continue growing.

So do I need to ride at least 45 minutes, do 35 minutes of hiit, AND seperately work on things like pull ups and push ups, all before I even think about yoga? Or is there a way to work toward those things up there that I deeply desire and see progress toward them without overtraining and putting unproductive stress on my body?

To make this long story at least marginally shorter, here’s the plan that I have settled on. It’s a slow, gentle build up to a routine that I think will be both sustainable and productive, as well as allowing me to do the things I really enjoy.

  • Strength: I’m finally letting go of the intense, fast paced long stretches of circuit training in favor of a program more focused on strength with shorter HIIT finishers from Kelsey Heenan and HIITMAX (formerly HIITBURN). In this program I will be focusing on lifting heavy three days a week and a 15-ish minute HIIT session twice a week, with lots of recovery built in. I’ll also be adding a short (5-10 minute) focused glutes or abs workout each of these five days. I chose this because it will allow me to work on building strength but with less intensity over the course of the workout, which will hopefully be gentler on my adrenals. I should still be strength training about 35 minutes or less a day, but half of the time or more will be rest between sets. I really am excited to see where this takes me, and Scott is happy because he’s been nudging me in this direction for years… but I’m stubborn.
  • Yoga: i’ll be practicing yoga every day, with four days being a 30-45 minute flow, and the other three focused on restorative practice.
  • Cycling: Starting in a week or two, I will gently reintroduce the bike to my routine:
    • (at least 1 week) 20 minute beginner rides 4x per week
    • (at least 2 weeks) 20 minute rides (no HIIT) 4x per week
    • (probably at least 2 months) 20 minute and 30 minute rides alternating 4 days per week,optional 20 minute low impact on Saturday (lift day 3)
    • Finally, staying with 20 minute rides on lifting days 1&2, and a 30 or 45 minute ride on HIIT days. Optional low impact ride on Saturday (lifting day 3)

So, how that shakes out to look after I’ve rebuilt everything is:

Monday: Lift Day 1 +booty, 20 min ride, 30 min yoga

Tuesday: HIIT day 1 +abs, 30 (45) min ride, 45 min yoga

Wednesday : walk and restorative yoga

Thursday: Lift day 2 +booty, 20 min ride, 30 min yoga

Friday: HIIT day 2+abs, 30 (45) min ride, 45 min yoga

Saturday: Lift day 3+booty, 20 min low impact ride, restorative yoga

Sunday: restorative yoga, walk if time permits.

It is still a good chunk of exercise, but I love to work out, so I’ve focused on keeping it at an intensity level that won’t wear me out.

Finally, the last piece of my wellness puzzle is, for lack of a better way to describe it, miscellaneous self care. Under this umbrella falls habits I’ve lost, like styling my hair, putting on non-workout clothes, makeup, etc, as well as making time to do the things that feed my soul, like reading fiction, writing, creative pursuits like lettering, embroidery, knitting, and crocheting. I suppose my soul care time (prayer and bible study) fits here too- I’ll be sharing more about that evolving part of my day in another post.

Thanks for sticking with me through all this, and and i hope you found something encouraging and helpful in all this processing that can help you get some perspective and refresh your motivation for your own wellness journey.

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