I have never been underweight in a clinical sense. No doctor has ever commented on my weight – at either end of the spectrum – despite suffering from eating disorders throughout my adolescence.
From the ages of eight to 18, all I wanted was to be an athlete. I began with triathlon, then swimming, before starting flat-water kayaking, which became my main sport for many years. I competed for Great Britain, won national medals, and loved every aspect of training and competing.
Sprint kayaking requires a blend of strength and stamina. Its counterpart in athletics would probably be the 800m. You have to be strong but able to sustain your pace for anywhere between 35 seconds to four minutes, depending on the exact distance.
So, I was muscular, slim, and at 5’8” – fairly tall as well. My body was fit, strong, and able to exercise multiple times a day. I was capable of doing some amazing things. But I never saw it that way.
My relationship with food and my body completely broke down around the age of 15. It had never been a particularly healthy relationship to begin with, but the better I did at sport, the worse the situation became. I began to see food purely as fuel, constantly calculating calories in verses expenditure. I consumed enough to keep myself going in training, but was meticulous in ensuring I never went over. If I wanted cake or chocolate, I would trade it for an additional 10km run.
One coach, however, noticed. Despite my calorie counting, I dropped two dress sizes. My power was waning and my results were slipping. Ironically, my running was getting better. I went well under 19 minutes for a 5km run for the first time, as I was now built for a sport I wasn’t training for – rather than the one I was working so hard to succeed in.
But, I still looked healthy. In reality, I needed psychological help, but would never have received it as someone at an ostensibly fine weight. Had I continued along this path I am certain irreparable damage would have been done, with medical intervention only kicking in once I was past the point of no return. However, my body had other plans for me.
When I was 16 I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), caused by Glandular Fever initially, but exacerbated through over-training and under-fuelling. This effectively ended any sporting ambitions I had, as getting through sixth form became my only goal.
This fatigue, which caused me so much physical misery, saved me mentally. I couldn’t run 10km to burn off excess food, because at times I could barely summon the energy to lift my cutlery. CFS would come in waves, so at times I was able to exercise again, but without the same freneticism I had had previously.
I began to view food and exercise as separate entities, which is difficult in a calorie-obsessed culture. We live in a society where we justify our eating habits with our workouts. We have major running shops selling t-shirts (geared specifically at women) emblazoned with captions like: “one more mile and the cake is history.” This only furthers the confusion between the two, suggesting that if you don’t eat the cake, you can run less. I can see how I began to associate a skipped meal with a skipped training session as a teenager: “If I don’t eat anything today, I can take a day off,” and vice versa.
I’m undoubtedly at my heaviest right now, but undoubtedly at my healthiest. I exercise because I want to, rather than to fit an old pair of jeans. I eat the food I want to, rather than adhering to an arbitrary caloric allowance I have set myself.
Having a mindset which categorises weight loss, exercise, and food as entirely symbiotic and interdependent is unhealthy. We should exercise and eat healthily because they are good for us, physically and mentally – not because they can lead to weight loss. We should also be allowed to eat cake without feeling we need to go for a run, and skip a workout without feeling we should also skip a meal.
When we separate food and exercise from each other, as well as from weight loss, we become kinder to ourselves and ultimately healthier overall.