“Twelve miles? How hard could it really be?” my husband and I asked each other as we googled “trails in the Smoky Mountains.” This particular trail was rated pretty high on the difficulty scale, but we had tried a much lower one the day before and it bored us.
So we packed an extra water bottle and estimated the hike taking no more than four hours, a 20 min mile pace seemed totally doable. Plus a woman on the website reviewed the trail as “easy and breathtakingly beautiful. My children loved it.” We thought, hey if kids can do it, we totally can.
We got out of our car and noticed all of the serious hikers standing around us. They had big backpacks with all of their little gadgets, and the proper hiking shoes and clothes. I was wearing my running shoes and some yoga pants, and my husband wore his indoor soccer shoes and Adidas soccer sweatpants. We looked at each other and had a five minute debate about whether or not we were actually prepared to do this hike. We decided to embrace our inner millennial and headed to the trail.
As you may have guessed, we had never actually hiked before. The truth is we both were pretty against it before the trip, but the mountains were just too beautiful to ignore. Both of us athletes in our own right, but definitely not hikers. Needless to say, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into and should have made a stop at REI before hitting this trail.
The first mile was pretty easy, we chit chatted, reflected on the past two years of our marriage, enjoyed the beautiful waterfalls, skipped around, took some pictures. We purposefully take trips like this to take a step back from the everyday craziness and reset. The first mile proved to be perfect for just that: long and deep conversations allowing us to reflect, take a step back. All the while, just wondering what all the fuss was about and not so quietly mocking all of the other hikers.
But on mile two, the trail got pretty steep. We began to realize why the serious hikers had been so prepared. But I was still excited to challenge the limits of my body, something I had only recently come to enjoy. About a year ago, I started to dive into fitness, lost 20 some pounds and — in the least cheesy sounding way possible — turned my life around.
Up until a year ago, physical fitness was not important to me outside of playing sports and improving my performance. After high school, I completely ignored my own physical health. I was always known as the weird artist girl, and was definitely never labeled as an athlete.
So after graduating high school, it was easy to just focus on what I was especially good at and leave my “sports” days behind. My energy and pursuit of “healthiness” was spent on developing my spiritual, mental and emotional health. It was time well spent, frankly — I was pretty unhealthy in those areas.
I became highly focused on having great self-talk and a positive self-image, while blindly ignoring my rapidly declining physical health. Gaining over 21 pounds, I constantly ate the wrong foods, rarely exercised, and never weighed myself. At that point in my life, I never thought I would be pushing myself up a mountain and actually enjoying it.
In fact, relishing it.
Mile three came and I pushed harder, my husband constantly telling me to be careful, this isn’t a race, drink some water, don’t hurt yourself. But the pain felt good. I kept saying, “I feel so good, please let me go at this pace, I just feel so good.” We were at a steady 2mph pace — which I later learned is pretty fast for an uphill hike. But I loved it. I was lost in my own thoughts, pushing myself and reflecting on the journey that led me to this point. I was proud of myself.
I’m not saying I’ve arrived. I genuinely don’t think anyone ever really does. But I realized something around mile four: my physical health is directly connected to my emotional, spiritual and mental health. All that time I spent working on my emotional, spiritual and mental health and ignoring my physical health meant treating my body like it was something separate and other from me. I failed to understand that my physical wellness is tied to my mental and emotional wellness. I can’t be at my healthiest emotionally/mentally/spiritually without actively addressing my physical health.
But physical health, like all other kinds of health, is tough. It takes dedication, mental willpower, and patience. Just like the hike. Halfway through mile four, it was getting hard. It became more mental than anything.
A huge part of this healthy emotional, self-talk, conversation for me was the language around the “Real Beauty” Dove campaign that kicked off back in 2004. I have always been a fan of the language they helped popularize: “You are beautiful just the way you are even if you are ‘curvy.’” That push to encourage women to embrace their own body types was culturally powerful, but like any powerful thing, it can be used poorly. In my case, I used the ideology as a crutch to ignore genuinely unhealthy habits that were having a negative effect on my body.
Let me take a minute to clarify what I’m not saying: I’m not saying someone can’t have positive self-esteem while not living up to cultural expectations of body types. People at all levels of fitness can and do live rewarding, fulfilling lives. I’m only saying something that should be obvious, but that we often lose sight of: our bodies are part of our lives. If you forsake taking good care of your body, your life can’t help but take a hit too.
It is, of course, possible and healthy for anyone to embrace their body type in defiance of cultural expectations of beauty. But in my case, I wasn’t “embracing” anything except poor life decisions that affected me physically and, therefore, emotionally. Positive “self talk” became a crutch that kept me from a truly healthy self-esteem, because I didn’t realize how much my physical health was affecting me emotionally. Not until I started making healthier life choices and realized all I’d been missing.
After mile four, I started to get slightly annoyed by the fact that it was so steep. I was getting a little winded and the gradual incline wasn’t feeling so gradual anymore. The trail was starting to get a little more complicated, I had to watch every footing to make sure I did not slip. I was focused and determined though, only two more miles to the top, I knew I could do it. This was a mental game I had won before, and I would win again.
The very challenge of physical activity makes me feel confident and accomplished. When I am fit, I think clearer, I am emotionally more attentive, I have more energy to tackle hard things, I sleep better, I pay more attention to new opportunities. I eat healthier. I don’t get sick as much. I don’t let bad days at work affect my entire night. I am mentally and emotionally stronger.
I am a better version of myself. Perhaps the best version of myself.
So all of these driving thoughts led me to the top of the mountain. I finally got to the view of a mountain range, and it was as breathtaking as you’d probably expect. But even more importantly, for me: I freaking climbed a mountain. The physical challenge not only helped me reset mentally and emotionally; it also helped me gain perspective on what it is to be holistically healthy. I felt accomplished, inspired, and free. Happy.