Lying in child’s pose, I felt defeated—the yogis around me in handstands had won. I knew I couldn’t launch myself into a handstand, and to me, that meant l’d lost this game.
For 20-plus years of my life, fitness was synonymous with organized sports. I played every sport they’d let me try out for and gravitated toward games like ice hockey, where I could compete with the boys—the ultimate ‘win’ in my 10-year-old head. I liked the challenge. l liked watching the boys’ faces when I beat them and their parents’ astonished reactions when they saw a girl on the team.
I was never the fastest, but I could out-hustle anyone. If I lost or identified someone better than me, I’d be out in my driveway every night until dark, practicing and plotting their defeat.
So it took me a while to realize fitness isn’t a win or lose game. I had to train my mind to look at exercise as an experience, not a competition.
When I was younger, competition was healthy—everyone around me agreed on this point. It allowed me to push my limits and achieve peak levels of performance. Any pain associated with pushing my body was rewarded with the sweet, sweet feeling of victory. And victory was always worth it.
The bar was raised when I started playing lacrosse in college and was surrounded by teammates with just as much determination to be the best. As one team, we’d do whatever it took to win, but as individuals, we competed for the starting spot—an emotional and physical competition that took every ounce of energy we had.
We were always trying to beat our personal record in the timed mile, but that number was irrelevant if a teammate was a step ahead down the final stretch. In the weight room, if the player next to you added weight to her bar, you added that much plus five pounds.
Not once did I question how this level of competition affected me as a person. I was active, I was fit, and being competitive just encouraged me to be my best, right?
But after graduating college, I was teamless for the first time in my life.
For as long as I could remember, I’d belonged to a team where working out was a requirement, not a choice. You couldn’t simply hit snooze and skip practice because you were tired. So trying to work out with no ‘big game’ to look forward to and no coach screaming in my ear just seemed useless.
I couldn’t get motivated to work out—what was the goal? Going on a solo run sounded miserable, as running was always a form of punishment for my teammates and me. I tried yoga but couldn’t stop competing with the yogi next to me. Legs shaking, I’d stay in whatever pose I deemed the most challenging.
I started dreading yoga classes, so I moved on to indoor cycling. I found this great studio that held team-based cycling classes where sprints could be ‘won,’ and every bike displayed its rider’s score. I could glance at the stranger’s screen next to me and make sure I beat their score, but the disappointment from not beating my neighbor every time had me skipping classes. A great, 45-minute workout just didn’t count unless I beat someone else.
My relationship with exercise was worse than ever.
Winning wasn’t as sweet or achievable as it had been in the past, so I skipped more and more workouts until I wasn’t exercising at all. When the holidays came around, I ate too many Christmas cookies (like ya do). I was gaining weight, losing muscle, and hated how weak I felt. That New Year’s, I made my resolution to fix my relationship with working out.
I wanted to enjoy exercising again, so I knew I had to shift my mindset.
Back on the bike, I turned down my resistance. My scores were low, but I was sparing myself the pain of ‘losing.’ In yoga, I allowed myself to practice at my own pace. One yoga instructor suggested I try closing my eyes during class, and it changed my practice for the better.
At first, I would briefly shutter my eyes once I was balanced in a pose. It ensured I wasn’t comparing myself to anyone around me, including that mirror that was constantly pointing out my flaws. After a while, I was able to close my eyes for entire classes. My poses and mental state improved immensely. I was focused on how my body reacted to movement rather than forcing myself into a pose that looked good.
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I may not have been burning as many calories per session, but I was attending more classes. I tackled my aversion to running by planning runs that felt more like sightseeing than training: I’d run half a mile to the Hudson River, walk and take a few pictures, run another mile to a lookout in Central Park, sit on a bench, and so on. I pushed down the feeling that my workout needed to be “efficient” and began to actually enjoy my adventures.
And almost without noticing, I began toning my body again. For the first time, I understood that whole exercise-gives-you-endorphins-that-make-you-feel-good thing. After about six months of non-competitive workouts, I was able to start infusing small competitions back into my workouts. I allowed myself to accept and push through discomfort to start challenging my limits.
I decided to test my new state of exercise satisfaction by signing up for a sprint triathlon.
Now, this might seem like a regression back to competitive fitness, but I set my mind to finding enjoyment in the race. I didn’t have a goal time—I just wanted to finish. I wanted to celebrate my body’s ability to swim, bike, and run. I had a group of girlfriends to race with, and together, we were prepared to correlate winning with having fun, not the other way around.
The race was hard: My body was tired by the time we got to the run portion, and, as other racers flew by, I couldn’t help but feel a bit defeated. It didn’t last long, though—I was too busy cheering passersby on to mope.
Rather than put myself down, I used any extra energy to motivate them, and that positivity got me to the finish line faster. When it was all said and done, the feeling of lifting up my fellow racers was better than any podium spot.
I’m not totally in remission over my addiction to competition—it’s an ongoing battle.
I still glance at the bike next to me during cycling classes and pick up the pace if my mile splits are below average during runs. But I’m at least able to accept every type of exercise as a ‘win’—even if I’m not setting any world records along the way. When my fellow yogis are in handstands, I stick with donkey kicks, knowing that I’m working toward it while getting a workout in the process—a process I now trust and enjoy.
Brittany Romano is a style writer, podcast producer, and golf lover, living in NYC.