Becoming a Cycling Instructor Helped Me Recover from My Eating Disorder
Sarah Madaus, REFINE Editor-in-Chief
During my early teen years — while everyone else was developing boobs and pubes — I developed orthorexia, an eating disorder which is loosely defined as “an unhealthy relationship with a healthy lifestyle.”
Also during this time, I was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), which, among other, more dire things, causes insulin resistance, unnatural body hair growth, and weight gain––the symptoms that young women hate the most. Armed with a mustache and a new batch of even more physical insecurities, I felt utterly lost.
To create some semblance of control, I frequented the gym between two-a-day field hockey practices, severely restricted my eating and obsessively tracked each calorie that touched my lips. I scanned my body in bathroom mirrors, experienced meltdowns in restaurants, and did crunches in bed. I craved control but had crossed the line between “healthy” and “disordered.”
This eating disorder reigned over my life for more than two years. At the start of college, my orthorexia simmered on the back burner because I was so busy, boiling over when a mirror or photograph caught a bad angle or I skipped a day at the gym.
But by sophomore year, my class load, relationship issues, and environmental stressors had me grasping for that feeling of control orthorexia gave me. But this time, instead of calorie restriction or incessant body scans, I decided to get my cycling certification.
I had gone to SoulCycle in high school (I was on that trend before most, and I have the vintage SoulCycle leggings to prove it) when I would visit New York City, but didn’t truly fall in love with the sport until I came to Temple, since I didn’t have access to studios near my hometown.
The IBC cycling room became my escape. Cycling was taxing, but rewarding, and the student instructors amazed me.
You don’t just go to a cycling class because you have nothing better to do. You go because there is some sort of driving force getting you there — whether that’s weight loss, stress relief, cardiovascular endurance, or just because your friend is dragging you along.
Being said, a cycling instructor can make or break the class.
The fall of my junior year, Temple’s Campus Recreation department hired me as a cycling instructor –– a position that high school me would have scoffed at. I have now been leading cycling classes for two years.
When I lead my sessions, my goal is to get that driving force to the forefront of my riders’ brains. Oftentimes when we’re midway through a ride, halfway up a steep climb, the only thing going through our brains is “Get me out. Now.” A lot of instructors will tell you not to honor those negative thoughts and only focus on positivity. But I tell my riders to use them. Don’t harbor that sh*t –– all energy can be used as fuel when you’re on the bike.
I broke out of my shell with each class as my confidence built. But it wasn’t until the fall, my senior year, that I found my pace on the bike.
At the risk of sounding like a member of the SoulCycle cult, I had some of the most raw, stripped-down interactions with my disordered mind during the minutes spent in mindfulness at the end of every SoulCycle class. I felt able to relinquish control, for once, and just be present. I wanted to give riders that came to my classes a similar opportunity.
I like to incorporate the mindfulness of a yoga or meditation session into the high intensity cardio of cycling. For some people, it’s very difficult to find a meditative headspace in a quiet, calm space, so I work with that and give those people the opportunity to, like me, have those raw interactions with their innermost beings. And I’ve noticed in my own life, practicing mindfulness––even outside of the cycling room––has done strides for my recovery journey.
During that final song, the final push, I turn the music up to 100, stay mostly quiet, leaving my riders to reconcile with themselves. I take about 30 seconds in the middle of the song to get preachy. Sometimes this includes me speaking from my own experience, other times, I pull from my arsenal of quasi-cliche phrases. I take that time for me, selfishly, because I can finally fit in that mindful practice. Sometimes I let my body sprint as fast as it can, other times I slow my cadence, sit back, and thank God for my riders and the incredible opportunity I’ve been given to lead them.
My sessions don’t focus on the physical body. I assume that everyone who walks in my class knows they’re about to get a physical workout, but they don’t know that I’m going to push them mentally.
Since shifting the focus of my sessions from the physical body to an entire mind-body workout, riders have approached me in droves. They tell me how much they appreciate the space that I create for them. I’ve even received a few, cherished messages from people who tell me I’ve helped them in their journey to body-positivity and mental wellness.
My attitude toward myself is changing, too. I look in the fogged-up mirror after my sweaty sessions, at my blotchy cheeks and slicked-back hair, and think, “she is strong.” And no, I’m not talking about my body.