I just can’t say it enough. Or loudly enough. My friends, wellness is not just about fitness. It’s about being whole. Losing weight doesn’t automatically bring emotional chemistry back into balance all by itself. Sticking to a diet doesn’t shift mental health into automatic harmony. Running, yoga, lifting weights, eating right; these are all important contributions toward wellness but as my friend Jayme says, “It’s all too easy to simply replace one addiction with another without actually solving the problem that causes the addiction.”
I think we could interchange obsession, compulsion, or even preoccupation with addiction and she would still be right. She uses the example of folks who replace an addiction to food with an addiction to weight loss. Both addictions can be equally destructive but too many assume the weight loss solves or resolves the original addiction because it’s considered a healthy choice.
Weight loss may indeed be a healthier choice but sometimes the addiction to achievement simply replaces the addiction to eating. The original wound (or void, or underlying dysfunction) doesn’t go away. It simply gets treated with a new preoccupation; soothed by a new diversion that on the surface feels redemptive. Healing may not happen no matter how much weight is lost because it’s not about the weight. It’s about the problem causing the addiction/obsession/compulsion. All the fitness in the world isn’t going to make this wellness.
Losing weight is still a fantastic goal for the obese. Working out is still a fantastic pursuit for the inactive. Everyone should be eating as well as possible. This is without question. I don’t mean to imply that we shouldn’t bother. What I do mean is that without healing we can end up bouncing from one obsession to another chasing serial achievement, thinking that every goal we meet is evidence that we are well. What’s the harm? The harm is the devastation and confusion when we find out we aren’t well–the cheated feeling, the rage, the anguish, the self-abuse/punishment–the reeling feeling that sends us straight back to the disordered, destructive behavior at the root of it all.
One telltale sign is the fitness plateau or the weight loss plateau. The emotional tailspin that accompanies a plateau speaks volumes about what really drives us. The fear that creeps out of the shadows during a plateau is a dead giveaway that we aren’t sweating for wellness, we are sweating to quell, quash, numb, or outrun something. We’ve simply replaced a socially unacceptable addiction with an acceptable one but we haven’t resolved the original issue.
Athletes and active individuals not struggling with weight loss are just as susceptible. While I’m always thrilled when someone tells me they have fallen in love with yoga, I try to always remind these new lovers that yoga isn’t something we practice only in class. If we aren’t practicing alone at home we aren’t really practicing at all, we are participating. Sometimes we are performing; challenged only when we have an audience, willing only when others are watching.
It’s the same with distance running. Relatively new runners get addicted to the racing part—just love it so much—but can’t/won’t muster up the same enthusiasm for completing long lonely training runs for the next level. Chasing the fun and elation of performance and participation becomes the new obsession. We can call this a healthy obsession because it is oriented to sports but this can be a half-truth. The dead giveaway in this instance is the runner who continues to sign up for races but refuses train for them; trying to phone in the work. That runner ends up depressed, sullen, and isolated when race performance suffers and he/she doesn’t get to share the glory.
For authenticity’s sake, I have been there. I know. I tried to resolve the pain and shame of yet another divorce with fitness and weight loss. I got down to 117 pounds trying to starve that failure to death. Every weight lifted, every mile run, every pound lost was proof that I was not an unlovable loser, not terminally broken, and definitely not a victim. Of course it didn’t work. Thin thighs and a flat belly didn’t heal, harmonize or balance anything ripped apart by my divorce or by all the tragedy that preceded it. I replaced my preoccupation with my pain with a preoccupation over my body fat. I may have looked great but I still felt like shit.
I’ve done the same on my yoga mat and on the racing circuit with other issues over the years and enjoyed the same degree of epic failure. This cycle wouldn’t be broken until I understood wellness as wholeness of body, mind, and spirit. Race medals alone were never going to do it. Yoga credentials also wouldn’t do it. Years of crap were going to take years of work on the crap, not work on my abs. Wellness begins when the bullshit ends.
Keep working out. Keep running the miles. Keep eating well. Lose the weight you need to lose. Be happy. Be proud. Be diligent and committed and driven. Celebrate. Selfie it up. But let’s be real when it comes to the truth of our motivations. Truth is the antidote. We will, without a doubt, end up right back at the source of our suffering over and over again until we start living those truths.