When I was twelve years old, my mother signed my brother and me up for karate classes. My brother actually wanted to do karate; I had no interest in it at all at first. Still, because I was overweight, my mother felt that it would be beneficial for me to do it along with him.
I had a rough time. I felt out of place and was hyper-aware of the giggles from the other kids when I had awkward moments. I wasn't as fast, wasn't as athletic, and running laps around the dojo wore me out good. Going to those karate classes twice a week gave me terrible anxiety.
Over time, I got better, and I got fitter. I did well at sparring and loved the weapons classes. But the anxiety never subsided. It was hard to shake the feeling that I was being judged. Plus, one of my instructors was particularly hard on me, amplifying the anxiety.
Despite achieving up to a blue belt, I still desperately wanted to quit. And after asking for what felt like a million times, my mother finally allowed me to stop. At the time, I was elated. But in hindsight, I wish I'd had the fortitude to stick it out.
I wish I knew then what I know now. I would have taken more pride in how much I was evolving and growing athletically rather than focusing on the fears of not being as thin as my peers. I would have celebrated myself and how much I was achieving.
I wish I had known to enjoy the process, to say, "fuck what they think, I deserve to be here." I always regretted not making it to a black belt like my brother. To this day, I have this underlying itch to move my body in ways unique to the martial arts.
I regret that I found it too difficult to shake the stigma of trying to be athletic in a bigger body. As far as I was concerned, I simply wasn't thin and fit like the other kids, and therefore, this activity just wasn't meant for me. No matter how much I achieved, I always saw myself as lesser, as if I didn't deserve to be there.
I also regret how unhealthy I became after I quit karate. The evenings that would've been spent being active in class were spent in front of my computer - usually with some fast food nearby. At the time, I felt like I was doing what was best for me. All I knew was that I'd been released from the stress those classes gave me. I literally felt like a weight had been lifted off of my chest.
But I had no clue what I was giving up. I was giving up the one form of physical activity I had in my life at the time. I was also giving up the opportunity to build a relationship with my body that respects movement as a necessary part of my physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional well-being.
This is an important lesson that I wish I could have learned back then. Instead, I would have to go through many years of struggling with obesity and related health issues. A healthy relationship with my body and prioritizing movement in my life would have saved me a whole lot of physical and emotional pain.
We all need to move. Our bodies have been uniquely, intelligently designed for movement, and our health suffers when we don't get enough of it. Americans spend way too many hours sitting and not enough time moving, and it's taking a toll on our collective health.
It doesn't help that society in many ways promotes the idea that only athletes and people who are trying to lose weight need to exercise. It's also a problem that exercise is often perceived as grueling or painful. So many exciting and enjoyable forms of movement are mistakenly tainted with this perception of exercise being some sort of punishment.
I also think it's a shame that "play," especially in the form of movement, is considered something only children do. Because when many adults grow up and "put away childish things," they stop moving around - putting their physical and mental health at risk.
None of this is healthy; bodies operate at their best with daily movement. There's no reason for it to be grueling and painful, and it should never be a source of anxiety, no matter your body size or age. Most importantly, movement should be seen as a regular, necessary part of remaining well - and no one should ever feel shamed, judged, or mocked for exercising.
Though it took many years of trial and error, I'm happy that I've shaken the fear of moving in ways that make me happy. Yes, I have lost weight, and I'm fitter than I've ever been, but these aren't the only reasons I make the conscious decision to move every day. I've been able to remain consistent because the forms of exercise that I incorporate into my life all pour into me in important ways.
Swinging and lifting heavy kettlebells reminds my body and mind that I am strong and capable. My long walks help me calm my spirit, clear my mind, and connect with nature. Each time I jump rope, it literally brings back the joy I felt when I did it as a child. And doing yoga challenges me and centers me in ways that nothing else does.
I do all of these things each week, not just because they help me keep off excess weight and stay fit, but because they contribute so much to my overall well-being. It's not about what anyone else thinks of me; it's about how movement makes me feel.
The actual act of doing karate made me feel good. The judgments of my peers and my own lack of self-confidence made karate anxiety-provoking for me, not the karate itself. Yes, I struggled at times, but I would've been content to struggle and suffer in private - away from the judgmental eyes of the other kids. I wish I knew then that all that mattered was that I loved how doing karate made me feel.
The confidence-killing life experiences that we go through have caused many of us to forget what it means to really feel alive. We allow ourselves to be put into boxes, become self-conscious, and cling to the negative judgments of others. We get so wrapped up in our stresses and fears that we deprive ourselves of the necessary nourishment that comes with movement.
I let the fact that I felt out of place cause me to quit karate, but I unintentionally deprived my growing body of so much. And I know that I'm neither the first nor the last person to allow life's challenges and the judgments of others to keep me from doing what's good for me and what makes me feel good.
But I've learned to reject the social constructs that keep us immobile and unwell. Moving our bodies in the ways they intuitively and inherently want to move is what it means to feel alive. This isn't something that can be achieved sitting down.
So I encourage you to find ways to move that makes your heart sing, and do it! And fuck what anyone may have to say. As long as it feels good and brings you true enjoyment, then you should do it - no, you deserve to do it.
Niv Mullings is a Plant-Based Nutrition & Fitness coach from the Bronx, New York. After years of struggling with obesity, anxiety, depression, painful menstruation, and other chronic health complaints, Niv changed her life for the better through fitness and a healthy plant-based diet. Now she helps others to do the same.