I Finally Started Taking Care of My Body
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Editors note: Narayani Basu, a historian and foreign policy analyst, is the author of today’s edition.
In this deeply honest personal essay, Narayani shares her fitness journey and answers the pivotal question: how did she become a person who prioritises her health? Her piece serves as a powerful reminder that taking care of our bodies can be a fulfilling and joyful experience.
I turned 35 in the first week of February.
I woke up early that morning, as I always do. It has been a lovely, sunny month in Delhi, and that morning was no different.
Usually, I spend the early part of the mornings working out or running. But on my birthday, I just wanted to be a lazy bum.
You know the feeling of being entitled to being lazy just by coming into the world on a specific day. I wanted to make a cup of tea, a nice breakfast, get a book and sit with it quietly as the day dawned.
But I didn’t do that.
Instead, I got out my running shoes. And I ran.
The prompt for this essay was, on the surface, a simple one: How did you get here?
That question circled in my head as I laced up my shoes and plugged in my earphones that morning. How did I become this person who goes for a run on her birthday?
Because I was never this person.
I. Growing up
In school, I skipped PT classes because of asthma (which, to be fair to me, I do have.) I was always last in any sports day races. I didn’t cycle. And I wasn’t into running around the playground during recess. I was a quiet nerd who loved her books and who loved to eat while she read.
In college, the world of junk food came to me: sitting about in campus dhabas and lawns with packets of chips, samosas, momos, and bhelpuri. There was no question of exercise unless you counted running to an 8.40 AM class because you were always fifteen minutes late.
In between all this, I ignored my body weight. I mean, it wasn’t a thought that entered my head. I grew up in a home where eating was enjoyable, and no food group was ever restricted.
And then came the time when my knees started paining. The usual tests and scans told my mom her daughter needed to lose at least 15 kilos. So for the first time, food was measured and restricted, and I was put into an exercise regimen I hated.
I had no control over this: the doctor had dictated, and my mother carried it out. The weight did fall off, but it wasn’t pleasant. The memories are not pleasant.
II. Early adulthood and work life
My career has always been sedentary. I went from sitting and studying for exams to sitting and working on research briefs during my first job as a research analyst in a think tank.
Those were my mid-twenties, and my experience with the food restrictions and exercise had left a rather unpleasant aftertaste. I watched what I ate because I didn’t want to start skipping carbs and eating steamed broccoli again.
But these were months when I was earning my first paycheque. I had my own money for the first time, and so did many of my colleagues. The urge to go and spend it in movie halls and restaurants was too great to resist.
As a result, my weight began to fluctuate.
The corresponding by-product of that was a fluctuating body image. I began noticing flat stomachs and toned bodies a lot more. I don’t mean just actresses and models but my friends, peers, and colleagues. I envied people who walked about in crop tops and tight jeans with no flab on their bodies. I was always the slightly chubby girl in the group photo — the one with the round face and the tiny hint of a double chin.
I wanted a toned body, but I didn’t want to do it when I thought about what that might entail regarding diet and working out. I want to call it a dichotomy, but that sounds too scientific to explain the push and pull between liking my body and hating it actively because it wasn’t toned enough or tight enough.
This pattern lasted a couple of years until I quit my job and embarked on what would eventually become my actual career: a writer. I began working on my first book in 2014.
This life was different. It was a life without access to regular funds. While it was undoubtedly sedentary, it was a lot more active because I was running around an archive or a library most days, I was taking the metro and walking home every day, I was standing a lot more than sitting, and because I was new to the freelance life and gigs were scanty, I had no access to junk food or eating out.
So my weight dropped and stayed down meekly. Was I thinking consciously about my weight now? Yes and no. I was still grabbing a samosa from the canteen, but most often, that would be all I ate until I got home in the evening. So I wasn’t eating enough to make me put on weight, but I wasn’t eating healthily.
That’s who I was. And then came covid.
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III. The Covid Shock
In March 2020, life as we knew it came to a grinding halt with the spread of Covid-19 and a lockdown that restricted physical movement.
As a result, I was sitting at home, usually on my bed. I had no real need to get up from the bed either. My books were within reach. I got myself a small table I could use in bed to work. The first months of the lockdown were stressful, so I naturally indulged myself by ordering out. That was allowed, I told myself. Everyone stress-eats sometimes.
Sometime in the middle of the year, my dog passed away, and I fell into a deep depression. The bed became a kind of refuge. Ordering out became something that I did out of sheer numbness. It was easier to curl into a ball than move a muscle. And since I wore my rattiest and most comfortable pair of pyjamas all day, I didn’t notice that I was gaining weight.
It was only when the lockdown finally lifted, and I finally stepped out of the house and tried to pull on a pair of jeans that no longer fit that I got a shock. Then, I encountered a short flight of stairs that left me breathless with the climb. That was it.
That was the beginning of the “how did you get here”
IV. Getting there
The next step after you get that kind of a shock is naturally: “but what do I do about this?”
My memories of the measures my mother had taken in college – restricting carbs, measuring food in cups – were strong. I didn’t want to go to a nutritionist or a dietician. I didn’t want to curb what food groups I ate. I didn’t want to steam my vegetables.
We were, after all, still in the middle of a pandemic. I needed my chocolate and my carbs.
So I did the next best thing and began portion controlling. I didn’t do it as scientifically and carefully as my mother had done. I refused to use a food scale or a cup measure. For example, I just cut one giant bowl of food into half. You can do that easily without using a food measure— it’s more manageable and less of a self-conscious exercise.
I still ate the carbs but began eating vegetables instead of pasta every night. I did a quick stir fry, or I made myself a salad. I don’t eat rice or roti at night anyway, so I only added some protein to my vegetables.
I chose dark chocolate or a fruit bowl for something sweet. That was a significant change because cakes, pastries, doughnuts, and ice creams were where I would go earlier.
It’s incredible how your mind gets distracted by newer ways to look at old things. For example, there are a million different ways to cook a single head of broccoli, so you can’t be bored because you’re eating the same vegetable daily.
As I said, I love cooking. But cooking for myself every night required a discipline I didn’t have before. Previously, my mother had ensured the dinner was cooked and ready for me. But I wanted to be in control of my life and my diet this time.
So yes, it was a struggle at first. I wasn’t used to cooking for myself, and the lazy feeling one gets at the end of a long working day was the hardest to kick.
But eventually, as the weeks passed, I became slowly interested in planning my meals. What new vegetable could I experiment with today? How could I bring a fresh taste to my chicken?
Once my mind changed gears — from seeing it as a task that needed to be done — to something enjoyable and fresh, it became easier, just another part of my day.
Then, I began exercising. It was painful as exercising was never something that came naturally to me. It was the last thing I ever thought of and making it a regular part of my day was difficult. Cardio made my chest hurt, and don’t ask me about stuff like inchworms and push-ups.
But the worse off I was, the more determined I became to improve. I hated being so unfit that I couldn’t jump rope for over fifteen seconds. I didn’t want to be this person anymore.
During the lockdown, I did online classes with fitness trainers. I began working out for twenty minutes, then thirty, then forty. It took me weeks of lying on the floor, bathed in sweat, with my heart hammering uncomfortably against my ribs before I could finish a solid bodyweight workout without collapsing midway.
At the end of 2020, I began lifting weights. Two kilograms made my muscles scream. The burn was a good thing, I was told brightly. I hated every nanosecond of it.
Until I found that my muscles were no longer screaming. Until I found that I could lift two kilograms, all the way through a half an hour’s workout. That may sound like nothing to you – but to me, at the time, it felt like I had scaled a mountain.
When the second wave hit us all, I was lifting four kilograms and walking around the colony parks.
All was going well. I was getting somewhere. And then came a halt.
V. The Shocking Shift
I got Covid in April 2021 — my second bout, the most hellish thing I had been through in a long while, one in which I nearly died and left me weak for months.
I couldn’t walk for five minutes without physically collapsing. Breathing was difficult for months.
My fitness and self-esteem went for a toss for the better part of 2021. To get back on my feet, the focus would have to be on starting again in the most basic and frustrating ways.
I had to learn to walk first. Literally.
It took six months before I could start lifting again. I had to restart lifting two kilograms and work my way up — once more. I began running in October 2021. I took short runs around the neighbourhood park because I couldn’t do more than twenty minutes.
This time my determination to do it wasn’t because of my weight. It was because I needed to feel strong again. I didn’t want to stop, gasping for breath, in the middle of my colony park, being watched sympathetically by the aunties who power-walked by. I didn’t want to remain lifting two kilograms, with sweat pouring off my face like I was lifting a mountain.
I also began therapy, and my wonderful therapist told me that I needed to start looking at eating cleanly and working out as the most basic ways I showed up for myself.
She explained that I was looking after myself by eating good food. And by paying attention to my fitness rather than my weight, I was paying attention to myself.
I can’t explain the tectonic shift in my perspective on working out and eating healthily after she told me this. It was almost as if someone had given me some magic key to some kingdom.
You see, I’ve never — as you can probably tell — thought about fitness consciously. It was always about losing weight, trying not to go back to food, and curbing my carbs.
It was always about “you ate two doughnuts today, Narayani; stop it now“.
It was always about “you’re not as toned as you could be, you’re not as slim as a woman of your height could be”.
There were so many preconceived dislikes in my head about my own body.
So to think of eating healthily and working out as getting stronger?
To think of it as looking after a body that an unknown virus had battered and helping it to heal?
To think of it as being kind to myself by giving myself things that were good for me?
That was revolutionary.
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VI. The joy of small things
How did that translate into real life?
The best I can describe it is enjoyment.
There was enjoyment in shopping for fruits and vegetables rather than Dunzo-ing them or ordering them online. It helped me see what I was buying and know I was choosing what to eat. I began to enjoy cooking again. I learned new ways of making salads by choosing the colours and flavours of the food on my plate.
I still go out a lot, eat out, enjoy chocolates and sugar in my chai, and enjoy a drink or two (three, if it’s my birthday!). But I began to have fun with being healthy. A lot of that fun came from, for the first time, thinking consciously about what it meant to be healthy.
I stopped looking at the scales. I no longer wanted anything concerning numbers, statistics, or BMI. I don’t have protein or collagen powders.
I wanted to focus on how my body responded to being cared for naturally.
I started seeing changes.
My hair became thicker and better. Muscles began to get leaner. I had more energy. I slept better. I could walk longer distances. I could run longer distances. My skin improved. These changes obviously only happened after a while, and they weren’t so major that they all arrived simultaneously.
You see them incrementally as your body’s health improves. Seeing that my body enjoyed being cared for was my biggest reward.
When it came to exercising, I began to enjoy running — knowing that my lungs, which hadn’t been able to breathe just six months ago, could carry me through. As I entered 2022, I began to look forward to lifting weights to feel my muscles get stronger.
Once I finally went back to the library in the spring of 2022, I shifted my workout timings. I’m a naturally early riser, and it made sense to finish working out early in the day so that I was done and I could get on with work and life.
At the library where I work, I chose to sit upstairs so that there were stairs to climb up and down. Then, I set a timer to get up and walk around the grounds every hour. I began carrying my water bottle on that short walk to stay hydrated.
Self-care, as a result, became something that was a part of my day. I bring salads for lunch to work now. That means buying vegetables in bulk, chopping them up, and keeping them in a big container in the fridge. It’s ten minutes of meal prep, and it takes nothing away from the day.
To me, that became the core of taking care of myself physically — to have a sustainable routine that didn’t require excessive discipline or schedule, that could be done with all the business of every day that one usually does, that one can incorporate into one’s life as easily as breathing.
I began to pay attention to the small ways my body enjoyed being taken care of, to the fact that I no longer huffed on long walks, I fit into old jeans, and I could lift heavy weights without risking my back or my neck.
For my body image issues, this did wonders. I can’t say that they’re gone altogether. On my best days, I’m never at what an ideal body weight should be for my height. I’ve made peace with knowing that probably, given life and hormones and age, I never will be. But learning to be kinder to the body that has carried me through a severe illness that has brought me this far and continues to hold me up and strong every day has changed how I look at it.
Yes, I still have days when I wish I were more toned than I am and when I feel a stab of envy at flat stomachs. But that’s human. I’d lie to myself if I said I don’t feel jealousy or wistfulness.
But I have learned to love my body, and that love has been hard-earned. So I’ll stay where I am now, emotionally and mentally. Regarding fitness, being kind to my body has only helped me pay attention to what it needs rather than what I may want.
It’s been one solid year of running, working out, and eating better and cleaner.
So if you were to ask me, in 2023, how I became the person who runs on her birthday, I’d tell you that it was the pride of realising that my body not only carried me through a critical illness but that it stayed strong enough to help me lift, to allow me to run.
I entered this year lifting nearly ten kilograms and running for an hour at a time. I got here because I began to revel in a challenge. I incorporated resistance bands and sliders into my workout routine this year. I work out five days a week, running twice and lifting weights thrice. I don’t go to a gym because I dislike being on display (but that’s just me!), so I work out at home with a trainer.
In the process of all of this, apart from being kind to myself, I’ve learned forgiveness.
Knowing there will be days and weeks when it’s hard to do anything but take care of life.
Letting go on holidays and coming back to start again.
Resting when I’m mentally exhausted.
I’ve learned to understand when my body needs rest and when it needs to move. I’ve learned the importance of going slow with myself physically, of not forcing a pace that my body doesn’t want.
Above all, I got here because, after a long, hard pull, I began to enjoy learning how to care for myself at thirty-odd.
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