My relationship with exercise changed the summer after my junior year in college. It was about three months before I was set to embark on a study abroad program in Kenya, and I received an email from a fellow future classmate with the subject line: “Who wants to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro?” Now, I had never met this classmate, never climbed a mountain and was pretty out-of-shape, but something drove me to respond immediately: “I’m in.”
Fighting Against the Numbers
In the years leading up to this email, my relationship with my body was very unhealthy. As with many college students away from home for the first time, I gained weight, I became a “vegetarian” (where cheese and bread and energy drinks made up about 80% of my sustenance), and I would crash-diet and exercise obsessively approximately two weeks of every month.
My body to me was the sum of its parts: what the number was on the scale each morning, how many calories in vs. how many calories burned each day, what size was on the little tag on my jeans. I viewed exercise and fitness as factors of subtraction. It wasn’t fun or rewarding, and it made me not only hate running and going to the gym, but it made me hate my body because the numbers never seemed to be small enough.
Reaching the Summit
Fast forward five months and I’m hiking up the glacier on top of Mt. Kilimanjaro in the middle of the night. My knee was still bothering me since the beginning of the trek the week before, the altitude of over 19,000 feet gave me the worst headache of my life, and the bitter cold froze my headlamp battery so that only the moon lit my path. But six hours later, one slow foot after another, I did it!
I reached the summit of that snowy mountain in Tanzania, experiencing the sunrise from the highest point on the continent, and I felt so much gratitude for my body. All of the jogs on campus in the previous months had strengthened my legs and my lungs. All of that good, clean, non-processed food during my training had prepared my body. And all of those goals and visions of climbing to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro had given me the drive and purpose I needed to reach the summit.
Changing the Equation
I realized that my journey to the top of that mountain changed my view on the relationship between my body and exercise. Now, I saw the equation as adding both mental and physical strength, a sense of accomplishment and pride, and gratitude for the gift of my body’s ability. No more subtraction weighed me down.
My body, which is more than just numbers (pounds, calories, inches), has since climbed many more mountains. It has taken me hiking across the world to more than 10 countries. It has allowed me to participate in fun activities with my friends. I’ve taken my eyes off of that number on the scale, and focused them on mountain peaks.
Nurturing the Whole Girl
Last month, I joined Girls in the Game as the new Teen Programs Manager. One of the values of this organization that brought me (literally) half-way around to world to work for them is Girls in the Game’s commitment to nurturing the whole girl. That means recognizing health and fitness as more than the sum of its parts. It is more than just addition or subtraction. It means building girls up to feel confident, empowered, and able. It means allowing each girl to decide what her “mountain” is, and strive to conquer it.