A week ago, I broke down and purchased a (rather expensive) stationary bike. My increased longing for spin class and trips to my neighborhood gym pushed me to drop an objectively ridiculous amount of money on a piece of equipment that looks comical sitting in a corner of the living room in my 700-square-foot Brooklyn apartment. But after four months sheltering-in-place with my two children, ages 5 and 1 — unable to move my body other than to pick up my teething toddler and chase after my now-feral kindergartener or take an infrequent social-distanced walk around the block — I invested in myself by way of a hunk of metal designed to make me sweat.
And while I think, overall, having a stationary bike in my home will be beneficial — especially since there is no way to know when the COVID-19 crisis will end — I took a significant pause before clicking that “purchase” button. Due to a history of disordered eating, I had to ask myself why I wanted to work out during quarantine. Now that more people are ordering food for takeout or delivery, and are living a more sedentary lifestyle as a result of shelter-in-place orders, was I — like 54% of the 1,500 people recently surveyed during this pandemic — working out simply because I was afraid of gaining weight?
The answer, of course, is complicated. If I’m being truthful, I have to admit that gaining a substantial amount of weight is a worry of mine — a byproduct of anorexia and bulimia, both of which I’ve been in imperfect recovery from for over 10 years. I know that my self-worth isn’t tied to the number of a scale or the size of my jeans. I know that when I’m at my most rational. But when I scroll past “quarantine 15” memes and fatphobic jokes about pandemic weight gain, I grow less rational and the nefarious voice inside my head tells me what society has always told women: you only matter if you fit a predetermined, unrealistic, usually unhealthy standard of beauty that typically involves being white and thin (unless, of course, it involves the fetishized attributes that white people associate with Black women, which, in recent years have been deemed sexually ideal, which should in no way be confused with an improvement in how Black women themselves are valued in white-dominant cultures, but rather now just represent a new ideal that more women will hate themselves for being unable to reach while also further contributing to the dehumanized sexualization of Black women — truly no one wins).
But I also know how beneficial working out during quarantine can be, not only physically but mentally and emotionally. According to a study of parents quarantined in China, published in The Lancet, parents are experiencing depression, anxiety, insomnia, stress, and post-traumatic stress disorder. One study found that 28% of parents were experiencing “trauma-related mental health disorder,” as reported by AXIOS, and a recent survey conducted by the Kaiser Foundation found that 57% of mothers with children under the age of 18 say their mental health is worse as a result of this pandemic.
And I am absolutely one of those moms.
After four months of facilitating e-learning for my 5-year-old, caring for my 1-year-old, working from home at least 60 hours a week, cooking three meals a day, and maintaining my apartment, I am stressed, anxious, and overwhelmed. I know what even a 30-minute workout can do for my mental health; I reaped those benefits while navigating postpartum depression after the birth of both my children. And while working out is hardly a substitute for support from a mental health professional (shout out to my psychologist and antidepressants!), when combined with a comprehensive mental health care plan, working out during quarantine can help struggling moms find a balance; a center; a way to focus on ourselves and only ourselves, if only for 30 or 45 or 60 minutes each day.
Moms feel constant pressure to “do it all”, to be versions of themselves so perfect that they could only be partially fictional. And now that moms are also shouldering the additional burdens of this unparalleled moment in world history, that pressure is only increasing.
When moms feel anxiety — which even the coolest among us inevitably feel during an actual pandemic — it very often manifests as a more extreme form of the pressure we always put on ourselves to do everything and be everything and be perfect at all of it. This is why every mom needs to ask herself the same question I asked myself before working out: Why am I doing this?
It’s a very valid question. Are you working out during quarantine because you’re afraid you won’t emerge looking like the consummate Instagram mom, her Lululemon leggings stretched over a size-2 frame while she sips coffee and rocks a meticulously curated messy bun? Are you working out because you feel you have to — like it’s another box on your never-ending “to-do” list that somehow proves you’re doing quarantine “right”?
Or are you working out because you value your mental and physical health, and believe that you’re well being is worth a dedicated amount of minutes? Are you working out because you know it will simply make you feel better, and right now you deserve to feel as best as one can feel in the midst of so much uncertainty and trauma?
If you answered yes to any of the former, I would encourage you to reevaluate your workout plans. At a time when women are more stressed than men, according to a Pew Research Study, the last thing any overwhelmed mom needs is to burden herself with another obligation that exists only because our fatphobic, weight-obsessed culture has convinced her it does.
But if you answered yes to the latter, and know that working out — be it yoga via a YouTube tutorial, with friends via Zoom, or on an overpriced-but-hard-to-deny-yourself stationary bike — will help you feel more connected to the parts of you that aren’t dedicated to the care and education of your quarantined children, then by all means: get your sweat on. Even if that damn bike takes up a large part of your living room.