Monday, February 17, 2014

Why working out at a military gym has been key to my eating disorder recovery

In recent years I felt that going to the gym was a chore. I felt like I never had time for it.  I always had too much to pick up at home, too many errand to runs. Now that I've accomplished most of the decluttering, organizing, and found some balance in my life I feel like I have the time to go to the gym. It's been an unusual experience.

I used to hate my time at the gym because I would push myself incredibly hard, particularly when I was at the depths of my time as an exercise bulimic. I hated feeling like my body was on display. I hated the fact that the women competed with the women, the men competed with the men, and the men hit on the women. When I went to a women's gym it was even worse, because suddenly all I was doing was comparing my own body to others' (possibly also eating-disordered) bodies. Generally making myself miserable.

But this time I've been fortunate to have one huge change in my workout routine that's made the experience much easier on my eating disorder: I go to a military gym. I've never been a member of the armed services but my company works closely with them so we are allowed to use the local military base's facilities. Typically I'm the only woman in the room. But this doesn't bother me. Here's why.
  • None of the men oogle. Ever. Why? Because they have no idea whether or not I could be their commanding officer. 
  • The women don't try to prove that they have better bodies than you. When I see women they're often in fantastic shape but they're never condescending about it. Why? Because they also don't know if I outrank them. Fat shaming someone at this gym literally could cost someone their commission if they did it to the wrong person. So no one does.
  • The guy on the upright bike next to me had his legs blown off by an IED in Afghanistan. It's impossible to go to this gym and not work out around Wounded Warriors who probably have some serious body image issues themselves. They're still there, giving it their best, staying healthy but not using exercise to punish themselves for what went wrong in their lives. I have no reason to complain about my body. Mine may not be perfect but fortunately it still has all its parts and I am damned lucky for that.
  • Fitness is many of these people's job but it's not mine. Depending what you do in the military part of your job description may be to stay in fantastic shape. Those people are duty-bound to spend hours each day working to ensure that their bodies are in particular condition. I'm not training for combat. My physical fitness doesn't have to save my life. If I can't bench press my body weight (when I was in high school, I could, believe it or not), or be toned and muscular all over, it's nothing I need to be ashamed of.
  • They have a dress code and they take it seriously. No bare midriffs. No cleavage. Keep your shirt on. Cover up your tush. If you want to show it off, go do it somewhere else. What you can do is what matters here, not how you look. Not to mention that a sexual harassment court martial is no one's idea of fun.
  • Respect, respect, respect. Just because I can barely do hamstring curls with a five pound weight doesn't mean I'm looked at like I'm weak. Everyone is willing to help out when I have questions about the weight machines. Everyone seems to consider people where they are because you never do know where someone came from. Maybe the guy who can only bench press an empty bar does that because he got badly hurt in Afghanistan. It's not his fault. The point is that we're all there trying to improve ourselves in a healthy way.
This gym's environment is a HUGE help to my self-esteem. Moderate exercise for 30 minutes, 3-5 times a week is no longer an exercise in emotional self-harm. I couldn't be more grateful to our armed services for allowing me to use their facilities and return to a normal life.


  1. Very well articulated. I do not frequent gyms but can understand your issues with most of them. This sounds perfect for you and I wish you well in your endeavours.

  2. I think that's just fantastic. I never really got into going to the gym - well... that's not true. When I was deep into exercise bulimia in college I went several times a day, as well as to the pool, and it was the whole competitive body-crazy environment that you describe hating in other gyms.

    The atmosphere you describe in the military gym sorta reminds me of what I found when I started cycling. Maybe it's because the focus in these activities isn't on trying to "look good" - it's something else entirely that people are after. In a military setting I'm sure that people are either trying to maintain strength necessary to perform their jobs, or they are trying to recover from who knows what horrible war-inflicted thing. In the cycling world, people are just trying to be better cyclists - which is totally different from trying to "get toned" or "look good." I mean seriously, everybody looks like a total dork in cycling clothes!

  3. For men, exercise is always competition. Especially the younger you are. I'm glad you found someplace you can go and get a great workout!

  4. I used to hate my time at the gym because I would push myself incredibly hard, particularly when I was at the depths of my time as an exercise bulimic. deadlift muscles worked

  5. What curious insights you have! I've never been to a military gym, but it sounds very accommodating, especially to individuals who really go to the gym for the exercise and not the interaction. I think it's a great environment to improve yourself! I also think that self-confidence and self-esteem is a very big factor in the success of any health program. Keep pushing for your goals and never give up!

    Ari @ InFighting


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