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When exercise was taking over my life, this is how I forged a new perspective

jacqueline chen

This First Person article is by Jacqueline Chen, a Grade 11 student in the TOPS Program at Toronto’s Bloor Collegiate Institute. It won the Beyond The Page essay contest organized by the Federation of Canadian Secondary Students and judged by a panel from that group and CBC News. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

A couple of months into the pandemic, I started experiencing frequent panic attacks. They could happen anywhere, anytime, but the feelings were always the same: I had a sudden urge to exercise and to do it right there and then. My mind’s perception of my body suddenly changed drastically. I am huge. I am ugly. I need to exercise.

My diet did not change. But just a few minutes after I finished eating, the guilt of having just one serving too many would slowly creep up on me. You should not have eaten that. Why did you eat that? Look at yourself.

Suddenly, my jeans felt too tight, my sweater too constricting and my stomach bloated. I would quickly excuse myself from the dinner table to rush upstairs to examine myself in my bathroom mirror. You have no self-control.

I would drop into a crouch or lie on the floor. I squatted, lunged and stayed in a plank position until my muscles were sore, my body burned and the little voice inside my head was satisfied.

Before long, these unpredictable episodes started to interfere with my schedule. Oftentimes during an online class break, I would quickly disappear to the bathroom to do as many squats, sit-ups or pushups as I could fit in that short window of time. Before long, I started to plan my study and leisure schedules around it.

Yet, the voice never remained satisfied, burrowing deeper into my mind, growing louder and more demanding.

When my older sister came back from Montreal during winter break and after much persuasion, she convinced me to learn Chung Ha’s “Snapping” dance routine with her. To me, dancing was an expression of body confidence — a concept so alien I had started to question its existence, assuming it was a luxury only a handful could indulge in.

Yet, my sister held my hand through it all, starting with the chorus, then the first verse — even the dance break. By the time we finished, she and I were both exhausted, proud and best of all, happy.

Those two weeks with my sister provided me with an entirely new perspective on exercise. It was no longer something that I associated with panic, negative body image or even as a weight loss practice.

In fact, the more I learned at school about the different biological processes involved, the more I started to appreciate how intricate my body was. I started to learn more dance routines on my own, practising in front of the very mirror which I had previously used to critically judge my body.

Before the pandemic, my relationship with exercise was superficial. While physical activity was something that I enjoyed, I always viewed it as a necessary chore for keeping oneself in shape.

Now, I’ve begun to view exercise as something meant for strengthening the mind and body rather than just for maintaining a figure — for increasing confidence rather than just regulating panic. Logically, my half-hour intense dance sessions were much more beneficial than tiny, rushed bursts of 20 squats or 10 burpees, and far more enjoyable.

Today’s culture of “all or nothing” has soured our relationship with exercise. Social media platforms are flooded with pop-ups about the newest workout trend guaranteed to give someone great abs or a thigh gap within a week. The very idea brings up painful memories of being teased in gym class or incompetence at a particular sport. But where are the memories of playing tag with our friends, the epic snowball fights between classes?

Our understanding about exercise needs to shift from seeing it as a chisel for shaping the parts of ourselves we do not necessarily like, to a tool for building confidence. Only then can people be saved from detesting the reflection they see in the mirror and come to embrace it.

Remember: exercise is about building confidence more than anything else — and you should give your body confidence, not the other way around.

If you are having a hard time coping or know someone who is, contact Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 or Live Chat counselling at

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