There’s a reason why I preach a reasonable approach to health and fitness: I know how it is when life is not in balance.
Throughout my twenties, I was obsessed with fitness.
I missed out on a lot of awesome stuff because on most occasions I chose the gym when others went to do something else. I combined that with healthy eating taken too far, and it snowballed. When you combine too much, sometimes forced, training with a strict diet, it adds up to a dysfunctional, unhappy life.
Here’s the story of how my healthy fitness habits turned into an obsession, how it ran my life in a way that I can’t recommend for anyone. And how the penny eventually dropped, allowing me to become the healthiest and happiest version of myself. So yes, this is personal.
It started as innocently as it does for most people. I dabbled in training in my mid-teens but nothing too serious; my life didn’t revolve around it. But gradually it started to, and I remember traveling to Sydney five years later and training most days when my mates went to do what other travelers do: relax on the beach, drink and chill. I should’ve been enjoying the warm summer days in a new city, but I decided to spend most of the trip doing bicep curls. I didn’t feel like it was a good day unless I trained first.
The second time around in Sydney, two years later, I was training 4-6 times a week, close to two hours at a time.
Everything I ate or drank was based on how much I would have to train to burn off the calories. No matter how much I trained, I was never happy with how I looked.
By then, I was getting compliments from people saying that I looked great. Compliments acted as gasoline to fire—they fed my obsession.
So at that point, I was already well on my way to becoming an orthorexic, which means I had an obsession with foods that I considered healthy. It’s an eating disorder that involves taking one’s healthy eating to an extreme. Count calories, and only choose the “purest” of foods. Food selection became a moral choice; it was either “good” or “bad” for me.
Then I took my first personal training job in a gym that was full of bodybuilders.
Their definition of letting loose was putting a tablespoon of low sodium tomato sauce on chicken breast on Saturday nights.
So things escalated rather quickly from there. I thought that being a personal trainer meant having a six-pack and building your diet around poached chicken breast and steamed broccoli while counting every single calorie you eat. I thought that life is all about how you look and that’s how you value yourself and other people.
Living a life using the above as guiding values is not fun. But I thought I was doing everything right. My life revolved around my body fat percentage. And the environment that I was in was feeding all this. Yet, I can’t blame others for my obsessions as it was something deeper that I was trying to reconcile within myself.
My life had no balance whatsoever, and I remember obsessing over eating and training to the point where it was heavily affecting other aspects of life. My poor wife (girlfriend at the time) must’ve thought that she’d lost her partner to the “health” industry. I put health in quotes because, as you can tell, none of the actions I took made me any healthier. I thought that if I wanted to have a career in the fitness industry, this was how my life was going to be.
I was constantly getting sick because I wasn’t eating the wide variety of foods that a functioning body needs. But I was not being able to connect the dots between my actions and how I felt. I was avoiding going out because of how it would affect my looks. Eating was not enjoyable, but more like a math class of counting calories. Food was not fun; it was purely consumed for fuel. It wasn’t about flavours but protein, fats and carbs. If I didn’t eat out of a Tupperware container, I was freaking out as I had no idea what sort of evil intruders would invade my body. This sounds nuts, but those of you who have gone or are currently going through this can relate.
And as with the majority of people who take fitness to the extremes, I thought I was at the pinnacle of health. You think I am too skinny? Whatever, piss off. I got deeply offended if anyone mentioned that maybe there was something wrong with my eating or training strategies.
But I can’t just blame the environment and the others in it. Looking back now, I see that I was definitely lacking self-confidence, and I tried to compensate for it by making myself look as good as possible. Truth be told, it probably wasn’t that good of a look in the first place. But when you’re immersed in the situation, you can’t see the forest for the trees, and other clichés.
I still remember the moment I realized that maybe I was not juggling all the balls right.
I went to the grocery store with a friend. He picked up a roasted chicken, and I grabbed a packet of rice crackers. I weighed all of 77kg at the time (I am just shy of 190cm tall, on a good day). He’s exact words were, “Dude, you shop like you are trying to lose weight”. It hit me like a ton of bricks. The difference to all the previous comments I ignored in the past was that it came from a peer who was in better shape than I was. Yet he still seemed to enjoy more things in life than just training. After that moment, little by little, I became more aware of what was going on. It was a gradual shift in thinking.
When you are new at something and still finding your feet, many of your actions are based on what the people around you are doing. When I started lifting weights, I thought the only reason to do it was to look like a bodybuilder or a cover model. After years of this mindset, I was gradually able to shift my values to health and strength over aesthetics.
And over time, I found what feels right for me. I discovered what I value in life and based my actions on those values. And now, in my early thirties, I look better than I did when I was obsessed with eating healthy and training. Or maybe it’s just because I feel better and I am more comfortable in my skin. When you are happier inside, it affects how you look on the outside. Do I still sometimes struggle and base my worthiness on how I look? Yes, but those are brief moments passing by. I deal with them by stopping and asking myself “what is important?”.
I see a lot of men going through the same that I went through. I try to share what I’ve learned in subtle ways, but it’s impossible to force it. I remember how I reacted then, and I know it’s like pushing water uphill if I try to convince others now. Most people have to come to the conclusion themselves. At some point, it will click. Maybe for you, it’s happening right now.
The bottom line is, you want to be happy, healthy and feel good. It doesn’t really matter how you look as long as you’re comfortable.
After my experience, I honestly think that a life spent chasing the perfect body is a life wasted. It’ll never be enough and you’ll miss a lot of great moments while doing so. Do you want to be on your deathbed listening to people talk about how chiselled you looked every summer? Or do you want something more meaningful?
Yet, this is not a hall pass to ignore your health. It’s about finding a balance. There are no evil foods, nothing is good, and nothing is bad. It’s just food, and you can have whatever you desire. Sometimes you eat a bit more of something and sometimes you eat a bit less. You don’t have to exercise excessively or go on a detox after a massive Christmas meal. You don’t have to diet to get ready for a big meal or punish yourself after eating ice cream. Be mindful and slow things down, enjoy the moment and move on. And use the same mindfulness in your training. Do things that make you happy. You deserve that.
Joonas Heikkinen writes at JoonasHeikkinen.com about simplifying health, fitness and life. To achieve a better balance in your life, sign up for his free newsletter.