If your mantra has always been “Eat. Lift. Live.”, stepping back from the gym or not working toward becoming the fittest specimen you can possibly be for any reason, such as when you bounce around the world like a pinball, is like asking you to cut off your arm.
You wouldn’t feel whole, so what now?
The tough-shit answer is that you’re forced to re-prioritize. The reality is that you initially thrash about like I do on the dance floor when I’m three drinks deep and have no rhythm, and you don’t even know who you are anymore. But you begin to take inventory of what fitness does for you and what’s feasible and realistic.
In doing so you become a better, even healthier person for it. I know I have.
It’s Gym Culture, Bro
Years ago, before I became a nomad, I wanted to be awesomely lean and muscular. I attempted it with the kind of militant obsession that I now look back on and chuckle at. To give you an idea:
I trained bodybuilding style four days per week, without fail. Breakfast wasn’t just oatmeal mixed with chocolate protein powder. It was exactly 35 grams of dried rolled oats and 25 grams of protein powder. If the kitchen scale read 24.7 grams, I’d let it slide — I wasn’t going to be that anal, but I’ve come awfully close…
How I came to develop this level of obsession is obvious if you saw where I used to work (hint: Bodybuilding.com). Normally if you wanted to lose weight, you know to eat less garbage and exercise more. That’s level one. Simple.
At level two you bring your own lunch to the office and maybe some snacks for when you’re out on errands. In the Super Saiyan levels above that, things move into cuckoo territory: you know exactly how many grams of protein each meal has; you track how many more pounds were lifted this week compared to previous weeks; you time your meals to optimize your energy for a workout; and more importantly, you know at what angle this lighting perfectly accentuates your biceps and triceps.
Those Super Saiyans of fitness surrounded me — on and offline — and that was the type of person I inevitably became. I counted my grams of protein and wanted the enviable bodies of my co-workers and those that were painted on the walls around my old office building. It’s not an easy thing to understand unless you’ve been in that Cool Kid’s Club: Why the obsession? Why weigh your damn oatmeal?
Other than the obvious pull of peer pressure, that’s the reality of what it takes to reach a certain physique. Paradoxically, the leaner you get, the more discipline, the more sacrifices, and the more harrowing the mind games.
In the end, however, I never reached my “ideal” level of leanness, but I freakin’ tried, doing everything that I thought was “right”. I lost about 13 pounds over eight months, thanks to my bud and coach JC Deen.
It’s hardly the kind of weight loss success story that sells 500-dollar blenders. Pity. But it’s the kind of success story that people need to hear to learn about the process and the true face of realistic weight loss. Those eight months taught me more than what I’d learned in four years of school and seven years of fitness self-help. (If you want to read a little more about the experiences I gleaned from this, check out my Greatist article.)
I wanted to continue, but changed my mind.
Ahhhh, a Fitness Identity Crisis!
When nomad life plucked me like a nose hair from everything I knew to be safe, reliable, and familiar, it dropped me in what I can only describe as an epic-sized bounce house, where I fought to keep from stumbling around and constantly tripping over myself. Everything about that #FITLIFE — the home cooked, carefully portioned out meals, heavy and regular training, and Instagram-worthy selfies — necessitated that unflinching dedication and access to the right resources like a gym and kitchen that nomadic life could not cater to. Those things left me when I did, and I had to come to terms with that.
At first I had a difficult time. It was challenging and mentally exhausting to keep a steady gym routine without a familiar place to go to. Without the gym I didn’t feel like I needed to eat that well. Without structured workouts within the gym, my workouts felt insufficient. Without the gym I didn’t feel whole.
It took time, as things always do, and some leaps in mindset, but things got better. I forced myself to look toward what was available to me now, rather than focusing on what I couldn’t have. Nomad life is a wide open road full of possibilities, many of which overrode my feelings of uncertainty and emptiness.
I wanted to explore, so I cast myself far and wide. I wanted to sample food as they prepared and presented it in their country of origin, so I unabashedly ate with an insatiable appetite and Pac-Man-like chomping. I wanted to immerse myself in the culture, so I had stayed for weeks and months in a place, away from any single gym, at a time.
I traded the energy, focus, and thoughts of working out to other things. Eventually, it became less important that I met my macronutrients perfectly or pump out however many reps of however many sets on which day of the week.
In spite of this, I wanted to prove that I could incorporate this important part of me — my fitness — into my life; so I took my learnings and experiences from my time at Bodybuilding.com, and applied them to wherever my adventures took me. Of course, those adventures often landed me face first into all sorts of decadent foods, like so:
Before those foods would’ve made me recoil into my safe zone of the perfect macronutrients found only in my kitchen, but I’ve learned that I didn’t need to be so accurate or even close to my macronutrients to stay fit. While I won’t be ultra lean, I can get stronger, and more importantly, share good food and memories with new and old friends anywhere I am.
Freedom From the Gym Life
Nate Green, a coach and author, describes this transitional phase from being really hardcore to realizing that being “really hardcore” doesn’t fit into your life anymore as a “recovering fitness junkie.”
While fitness still remains a core tenet in my life, my worries about being in tip-top shape have shrank. Like Green notes for himself, I still make good dietary choices. I emphasize vegetables and quality protein, but avoid a hissy fit if I get 90 grams instead of 130 grams. I indulge, and I use nutrition principles that are just as flexible as my current lifestyle is to stay healthy and fit. Here’s a picture in July 2017.
At best, I managed to get stronger, albeit with slower-than-normal progress. At worst, I gained about three-quarters of my weight back. But I’m psychologically healthier and a more attentive, caring friend, daughter, and confidante.
The “Good Enough” Mindset
I still care about looking fit in a racerback tank, or while wearing any other clothes, and eat and work out accordingly, but there’s now one overarching theme:
“Good enough is good enough.”
“Good enough” empowered me to ditch the idea of perfection, which may have caused me to give up on fitness completely — at least temporarily (but we all know how difficult it is to return after a long hiatus). Forsaking fitness is what often happens to people when life has a way of poking myriad holes in their airtight plans.
I didn’t come upon this thinking overnight. Just like how it took time to build your fitness habit, it will take just as long to unclench your butthole about your fitness habits. I’m not saying you need to ditch them. I’m saying that fitness isn’t about steamrolling your way through sheer willpower to make things perfect in the way Instagram and fitness cover models have defined fitness to be.
- Nothing is permanent: Even your lack of fitness. I constantly shift between periods of lifting at the gym, or doing only bodyweight workouts, or just hiking.
- Use this as an opportunity to work on weak links: Maybe you initially wanted to build a crap ton of muscle. If you don’t have the food and resources to do that, work on something that you’ve always neglected, like flexibility. The skills you learn will carry over to the gym
- Doing something, even if it’s not “optimal”, is better in the long run: Sometimes you have to bend to the circumstances and resources that are afforded to you. And if they’re not “optimal” by traditional standards, it can be “good enough.” If I have to skip a week or two of working out for whatever reason, so be it. I can take long, exploratory walks instead. I wrote more about this here.
- Make your concessions: Studies show that it takes weeks and weeks to completely be deconditioned. If your goal is to maintain, what’s the minimum number of days that you’d be okay with? For me, I was okay with lifting heavy once or twice per week, or three days of bodyweight workouts.
If you’re worried that traveling or major changes that disrupt your routine is going to ruin your fitness, I’d argue that it’ll actually be good for you and your fitness. Your priorities will change, and you’ll find that you can’t control everything. And it’ll all be OK.