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Carly Keyes: Exercise as obligation does more harm than help

By Carly Keyes, Daily Health and Fitness Columnist
Published February 28, 2013

When I wake up, seldom do I spring to life, strap on my shoes and hit the pavement — especially during Michigan’s winter. If I hit anything, it’s the snooze button. Then, I conjure reasons why I should spend the next hour running a load of laundry instead of the six miles I’ve planned — that is, if I get up.

Nine times out of 10, I fend off the lazy bug, and if I skip a workout once in a while, it’s no big deal. But when I was a college athlete, exercise was a full-time job — enforced, not elective — and I loathed going to work every day.

I played Division I soccer at Penn. No, not Penn State. I’m a proud member of the Facebook group: “Not Penn State, you dumb bitch,” and I have the t-shirt to prove it. Call me elitist or overly sensitive, but how does it feel when you tell someone you go to Michigan and they reply, “Oh, Michigan State?” The defense rests.

My relevant point: A Big Ten school like Penn State, now notorious for their football program (insert every Sandusky joke here), and an institution like Penn, where Franklin Field is depressingly empty on the regular, are worlds apart. I was a damn good soccer player, but I didn’t go to Penn to make a career out of it (not that you can …). I went to study at Wharton, arguably the best business school in the country. So, I prepared myself for a beating in the classroom, but nowhere did it stipulate in my letter of intent that I’d be chained to gym equipment by an English dictator with a whistle.

In season, we practiced Monday through Thursday and traveled along the East coast for weekend games. But, despite the rigorous schedule, I had no qualms about committing to a game I loved.

But then we began the off season, and there was nothing “off” about it: Monday we sprinted; Tuesday we kick-boxed; Wednesday we lifted; Thursday we rowed. Only on Friday did we actually touch a soccer ball.

The routine didn’t just wreck my mind and beat my body, it killed my spirit. I dreaded every morning, cemented to the sheets, emotionally debilitated and unable to move without wincing in pain. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness became “Perpetually Inset Muscle Agony.” I popped Tylenol like Tic-Tacs as I side-stepped at a turtle-pace up and down stairs, and lived in sweatpants — even dressing myself caused more pain than I could handle.

After two months of torture, I sprained my ankle during a sprinting session. I rejoiced. I knew it would sideline me for the rest of the off season. But if I’m relieved after sustaining an incapacitating injury, thrilled to be on the bench and celebrating my inability to participate — if that’s my gut reaction — then there’s something wrong.

I interpreted the joyous ankle sprain incident as a sign that my current lifestyle had brought me to an unhealthy place. I quit the team at the end of the year, joined by a few other girls who shared my struggle and finally freed myself from the crippling pressure of that oppressive regimen.

When it became an obligation, rather than a choice, physical activity hindered my health. To this day, I still can’t touch a free weight, sprinting nauseates me, and I only recently conquered my demons with the rowing machine. When I tried cross-fit for the first time, just the smell of rubber mats and the sight of really heavy things triggered unpleasant flashbacks.

But working out doesn’t have to be daunting and intimidating and burdensome. The whole reason we do it is to feel better inside and out. When I began to mend my relationship with exercise, I discovered that I love pilates classes, swimming, basketball and long-distance running — I signed up for a marathon in May not because I have to, but because I want to.

Now, I mix up my workout routine, because I can. Some days, I do push myself and pound out 4500 yards in 25 minutes on the rowing machine or run three miles in 21 minutes. Other mornings, I just want to walk on the treadmill while I read US Weekly. And, on occasion, I do (what used to be) the unimaginable: I take a day off.


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