In high school, I started going to the gym every day and avoiding junk food because I wanted to be healthier. I couldn’t run 400 meters without getting winded. I spent hours in front of my computer. My favorite Saturday lunchtime tradition was getting a pizza from Pizza Hut and eating it all myself. At first, exercising more and eating less junk food did make me feel healthier. I felt more alert. I could finally run a mile without stopping. I became more confident in myself and less clumsy when I walked.
But with my aspiring-dentist Type-A personality, exercise and eating became parts of my life that I liked to work on obsessively. When I moved away to college in Boston, hundreds of miles away from home, I was excited to make my own decisions. Among those decisions was to set an alarm for eight every morning to go for a run. I ran in the rain and even when the sidewalks in Boston were covered in snow. Buoyed by my healthy morning runs, I made sure I ate healthy the rest of the day. I only wanted natural, whole foods. For breakfast, I ate a single piece of whole-wheat toast and a small banana. I had a sandwich with one slice of turkey meat and lots of vegetables for lunch. I only ate fruit between meals, and I never ate dessert. Sometimes I would spend a long time reading nutrition cards the dining hall put in front of food items. How many calories? How many processed ingredients? How much refined sugar?
And every day, I ran 5-7 miles at eight in the morning. No exceptions.
Of course, with all those miles, I shouldn’t have been running more and eating less. I should have been running more and eating more. In fact, I was always hungry. It would start thirty minutes after breakfast, in between meals or even when going to bed. I didn’t think that I had a problem. I thought I was being healthy by exercising so much and eating so little. I Googled “always hungry” and found articles that told me hunger is often mistaken for thirst. “Make sure you’re really hungry before eating,” the website said. “Sometimes you think you are hungry but you are actually thirsty. Drink water.”
I drank a lot of water. I also lost a lot of weight.
When I finally went home for winter break, my parents were horrified by how much weight I’d lost. “You’re too thin!” my mother said to me. “I feel like I’m hugging a bag of bones!” My sister noticed too. As we were getting ready for bed later that night, she told me she could see my rib bones. “They’re, like, sticking out,” she said.
My parents took me to see the doctor. The doctor ran a blood test for hormones and a 24-hour heart rate monitor test. The following week, she went over my results. My estrogen levels were low. When I slept, my heart rate dropped to 35 beats per minute. I had also stopped getting my period a few months earlier, and my doctor explained that menstrual irregularities are common in women when energy expenditures exceed energy intake. My body didn’t think I was healthy enough to have a baby.
“If you want to exercise so much,” she said, “you need to eat more to fuel your body. My goodness, at least put some butter on your toast!” Her prescription was to take a break from running, or at least to reduce the intensity and frequency, and to incorporate more healthy fats and protein into my diet.
At that point, I had been running and restricting my diet every day for a year. It wasn’t easy to suddenly take breaks from exercise or be more flexible about my eating habits. On days I didn’t run, my legs felt like they would run away without me. I felt trapped and found excuses to run up and down the stairs or run in circles while my parents watched TV. During meal times, even though I tried to eat more and started feeling full again, I almost felt guilty for gaining the weight that I had lost.
Now it’s been about seven years since my initial visit to the doctor, and I’m still working on a healthy relationship with exercise and food. Eating and exercise are not just physical processes. They involve a lot of mental effort as well. I have to remind myself not to over-exercise or under-eat, especially now that I’ve started clinic and don’t always have time for meals or sleep. Even though there are days I want to run, I have to force myself to take a day off, sleep in and stretch because my legs are tired. And even though I initially believed I would be slower and heavier after rest days, I actually feel more refreshed and run with more energy.
I don’t want to discourage exercise. Physical activity is an important part of wellness. Running has motivated me to explore my surroundings and to make friends with fellow runners. It has also given me the self-confidence to pursue other activities I would have been too afraid to seek out in the past, such as swimming, cycling, climbing, hiking and even running for ASDA Wellness Chair.
Physical activity alone is not enough to be healthy. Make sure you give yourself enough nutrition and rest. Take breaks when you are injured to give your body time to recover. I eat and sleep more than a lot of people I know, but I also know I need to because I spend 1-2 hours exercising most days. I still run 5-7 miles, but not every morning. Sometimes I sleep until noon. Sometimes I go on long bike rides or hike with friends or lift weights at the gym. Sometimes I sit on the couch and watch Game of Thrones for six hours. Sometimes I still feel guilty for not exercising. For breakfast now, I sometimes eat eggs and oatmeal and a banana. Or sometimes I will go to my favorite bakery for a morning pastry and coffee. Sometimes I eat two dinners because I am just that hungry.
And yes, I still drink a lot of water. Except now, I also eat dessert.
~ Julianna Ko, San Francisco ’19