AAs most people in their early 40s can attest, our bodies don’t bounce back like they used to. I never learned how to move my body. I was a chubby kid turned into a grown majestic chonklord, and the messages in gyms were clear – I didn’t belong and shouldn’t try.
I am now addicted to sports for the first time. All it took was a hospital stay with bilateral pneumonia and the pulmonary rehabilitation that followed to get me on this new, triumphant path. I can’t believe I’ve missed for so long the joy of strength and pride that comes after a panting-swollen trot around the block.
Elementary school mornings began with similar rounds of school to encourage fitness and focus. From the age of five I felt self-conscious because I was slower than everyone else. That frustrated people. I had missed the nonexistent lesson on running, but everyone seemed to know anyway.
Harsh feedback came from kids who were more focused on my fumbles at an athletic carnival than on their own progress. “It was so funny watching you try to run away,” one boy announced loudly as the whooping crowd gathered. It stinged more than the bruises I’d gotten trying to get over the hurdles. I fired back, “Not as funny as watching you try to read.” Everyone was gasping – I had gone too far. Cruelty is only acceptable if it is related to size or lack of athletic ability.
The experience of sports as hell is not just for clumsy children who look like Winnie the Pooh. I spoke to Scott Comber, a personal trainer who first discovered a love for physicality and exercise as an adult and then ran a gym for six years.
“My memories of school sports are people screaming in my face, excessive violence that children were forced into and a lack of care. We never learned anything that would lead to healthy patterns,” he says.
After discovering training as an adult, “I got to the point where I loved it so much I wanted to share it. My gym was inclusive, non-threatening, and all strengths and skills were respected.”
Comber says a lot of effort has gone into “undoing emotional damage because of the way people were taught.” It’s healing for me to know that I didn’t have that opportunity when I was younger, but the people I’ve trained had a caring, educational experience that saved them from future physical problems.”
I wish I had figured out how to save myself instead of internalizing harmful rhetoric and banning myself from a more active lifestyle. But there were no visible avenues for that to happen in my early years — every sitcom and movie mocked fat people for existing. Making myself as small as possible and trying to attract as little attention as possible felt like the only way to get through that time.
My memories are laced with encounters that communicated “not for you, fat bastard.” The fatal mistake of wearing a Sportsgirl jersey (which I didn’t realize was a contradiction in terms) caused sniffles everywhere I turned. I was regularly denied a place with the skipping rope. My face often burned with shame, the result of trying and learning not to.
While I liked the game element of sports, my lack of coordination and speed seemed to be something I did to others, inadvertently ruining everyone’s fun. In a life where fitting means that one size fits all better, children don’t value effort or concentration. Finding a safe spot in the pecking order is all that matters.
High school brought the nightmare of cruel and elitist teachers, with a few friendly and encouraging exceptions. Had I walked in with a confident swagger, it was entirely possible that I would have had it easier. But as it was, every time I put on my sports uniform, I felt an ominous feeling.
I never learned to use my body in a way that incorporated the strengths I had. If only I had known that sport is more than speed – and much more education than competition.
Three months ago, I arrived at pulmonary rehabilitation with Jesse, my physiotherapist. It was a hand up and out of the dark fear I was trapped in. Her warmth and encouragement gave me a fresh start.
For six weeks I learned how to move my body safely. We started with walking and graceful hand weights to reacquaint my lungs with the airflow. Every week the weights got bigger. I got stronger and stronger and started to feel something new. I looked forward to that feeling every day and still do – walking, cycling and weights are now a joyful priority.
My body can be a tricky place to live for so many reasons, but seeing myself reflected in the gaze of someone I trust was key to changing the story. Every step in my progress was celebrated, there were no caveats or moments of self-mockery.
The message that I could love my body—with nothing to fear or be ashamed of—made its way into my sense of self. Earning my seat was important, but it helped that I got permission from someone who knew the business. Anyone can be nice, but getting the building blocks I needed because I was ready meant a lot.
Learning to love exercise as an adult probably depends on what drives you. Small, measurable, and technical steps toward a goal — along with an encouraging expert — can work for some, while gentle walks in nature for much-needed rest can ignite a spark for others.
Just like learning to ride a bike, there’s a moment when you’re gone and you can’t quite believe it at first, the feeling of freedom without those guiding hands. Once you find it, it will never leave you.
My physical education came at age 41. I’ve been welcomed into a headspace and lifestyle that I didn’t know I was allowed to step into. My gratitude overshadows my resentment, but I feel deep sorrow for that cute kid who just wanted a fuck like everyone else.