A couple of weeks ago, I lay on a white medical table as a doctor stitched up my lower abdomen. I had a small benign lipoma, which is basically a fatty lump under the skin. It had grown twice its size in six months, and it jutted out right above my pubic bone, making me feel pretty self-conscious.
As the doctor finished up, she warned, “Make sure you’re not wearing anything that can press on the area. No bending. No jeans. And no working out.” And then, she added: “For a whole two weeks.”
I normally try to do some form of cardio or strength training a few times a week—it helps me feel my best and gives me a sense of calm and confidence—so this 14-day no-workout rule was not ideal. However, the last thing I wanted was to pop a stitch or get an infection, so I committed to going gym-free. Off to 14 days of nothingness I went.
The first no-workout day was straight aces from start to finish. Instead of picking through my dresser to find a clean sports bra for my morning workout, I lounged in bed much later than I’m accustomed to, and read the news on my phone (something I never have enough time to do). I felt great—still sore, but surprisingly energized by knowing I didn’t have to go to the gym.
Off to 14 days of nothingness I went.
Day two was similar in that I got a little extra sleep, strolled serenely off to work, and kept all my promises to not wear jeans. My joints, however, grew stiff from the lack of mobility. Since every move I made had to be somewhat calculated (as to not bump into anything or stretch in the wrong way), my body was starting to tighten and get tense.
By day three I realized that the extra sleep and downtime weren’t actually good for me. The motivation, the endorphin rush, and the sense of accomplishment I had when I stuck to a regular workout was missing—and this gave way to sadness and insecurity.
A self-conscious voice in the back of my head criticized how the pattern of my dress looked across my belly. The voice commented on my choice to use whole milk instead of soy for my morning coffee. It told me that I would probably embarrass myself if I spoke up in a meeting. And, while yes, my-own-worst-enemy syndrome is a thing I struggle with constantly, it’s never as powerful when I’ve taken the time to do some cardio or lift weights.
The motivation, the endorphin rush, and the sense of accomplishment I had when I stuck to a regular workout was missing—and this gave way to sadness and insecurity.
The voice was there when I ate lunch and boomeranged back again when I was doing my nightly skin-care routine. It exhausted me the way it plucked at my self-esteem when as I a teen. By the weekend, my entire demeanor had changed; I was a sad amoeba that sulked from place to place.
On Monday morning, my colleagues asked if there was anything wrong as I quietly made my way around the office, since lacking expression is not exactly what I’m known for.
The depression hit hard as I recoiled into my bedroom, refusing to see friends or do anything that didn’t include applying Aquaphor to my stitches or feeling a general sense of sadness. (Cue the soundtrack to my teenage self.)
Through week two, the blues continued. I still felt sluggish. My workout-less life was fueling a laissez-faire attitude toward food, and I was more or less eating whatever I wanted to. This was also adding to that self-doubt voice (and draining me of my weekly food budget).
My colleagues asked if there was anything wrong as I quietly made my way around the office.
Despite my snacking and interrupted workouts, my body hadn’t changed in any way during these 14 days. Everything fit as normal. It was my mental health that was affected. I just wasn’t as happy being sedentary. As the great Elle Woods from Legally Blonde once said, “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy.” She was absolutely right.
When I was younger, working out equaled weight loss and social acceptance. My entire perspective of exercise was wrapped up in a warped understanding of what my body should be—and I very much abused myself in an effort to drastically become that idea. But these days, I’ve gotten much smarter about my body’s limits, and I’ve adopted healthier ways of staying fit. A big part of that, for me, is realizing how using my body can benefit my mind.
When the 14 days were up, I sadly—but not unexpectedly—had to seriously motivate myself to get to the gym. In fact, it took me a few weeks to get back on track. The time off reminded me that the gym is a sanctuary of wellness—not just a body-transforming warehouse—and crucial to my happiness.