**I’ve had the shell of this post written since I started this blog. Fitness is beyond important to me, but I didn’t know how to write about the positive impacts it has had on my mental health without sounding a bit general and cliché. Yesterday was a pretty shitty workday for me and I was very self-aware of this going into my workout. Thankfully, my trainer is the best, and pushes me to limits I didn’t think I could reach. I left my workout feeling so much better mentally and it just goes to show you how amazing working out is good for your brain, as well as your body.
Physical activity has always been a part of my life. Until recently however it wasn’t exactly my choice. The first thing anyone really knows about me is that dance is a huge part of my life. I’ve been doing it since I was 2. I competed. I danced at a college level – on dance teams, through theater, and in clubs. I even facilitated an internship opportunity where I got to both work and take class with a professional company. I didn’t dance to stay in shape though. Being in shape is a side effect of throwing your body around for hours at a time. Sweet right? Well, it stopped being so sweet. As you all know by now, I don’t shut up about my relationship with food and my unfortunate relationship with weight. I started gaining a lot of weight when I went to college. It’s no shocker that gaining weight sucks. It especially sucks though when you think you’re doing everything right. When you go for hour long runs and give up carbs and ice cream. When you choose to go to a spin class when you’d rather nap. When you resort to eating baby carrots and celery and one slice of turkey lunchmeat for a meal.
College was the first time I ever really “hit the gym”. Like I said before, dancing at a competitive level kept me in shape all of high school. I was training for roughly 10 hours a week – not including weekend long shows, rehearsals, conventions, and competitions. So there was honestly no need for me to do anything else. Running the mile in gym and maybe doing 25 crunches here and there seemed perfectly fine. But once I turned to a more “normal” life, my body began to act more “normal” as well. I remember the first time I realized my jeans weren’t really fitting me. It was roughly November of my freshman year. I had just taken a shower as some of my friends and I were going to go bowling. As I was getting ready, I went to put on my size 2 jeans – not jeggings, real denim no stretch jeans – and for the first time ever they were really hard to get up. I saw scenes of movies and shows of girls wrestling with their pants, laying down on the bed to get them zipped and buttoned. But I genuinely thought that was all an exaggeration. Did girls really get in fights with their clothes? Apparently so, because by the time I finally got them on I was ready to rip them up and throw them out my window. That was the first sign that something wasn’t quite right with my body and that it was changing in a way I didn't want it to change. The next day, I asked my neighbors to check out the RecPlex with me. And holy shit. The place was huge. I saw my real first weight room with all of the tank-clad bros, the track with girls running and using 5lb dumbbells, and all the cardio machines a private university can buy. It was intimidating. It was beautiful. It was everything. It BECAME my everything.
Naturally, for the next year and a half, any time I went to workout, I made a beeline for any open elliptical. Female catered magazines always told me how great cardio is and how much fat it can burn. Headlines would shout, “Cardio is key ladies!” Oh gee whiz thanks Shape! But here’s what they all forgot to mention…STRAIGHT UP CARDIO SUCKS. SERIOUSLY. It’s the absolute worst. No matter what mode you put it on, it’s never “fun”. You still hate your life for every minute you’re on the damn thing. And is it just me, or is a treadmill minute the only thing slower than a microwave-when-you’re-starving minute?! But we, I’m using the collective here, we do it anyway. Especially women. Because someone somewhere in time got everyone else thinking that endless cardio is the only solution. News flash. It’s not. And eventually your body gets used to and expects that stupid hour of cardio every day. Meaning that you actually have to start doing more cardio to continue seeing results. By the time I was at my worst relationship-wise with food, I was going to the gym between 6-7 am to crush 500 calories on an ArcTrainer. Then I’d go to class. If it was nice out, I’d go for an afternoon walk/jog. And then after class, I’d go to some kind of spinning or cardio kickboxing class, followed by dance some nights. Can we recap that for a second? On days such as that, I was doing 5 hours of cardio, was hating at least 3/4ths of it, AND was still carrying more weight than I was willing to admit. That’s crazy right? I don’t even need to ask. It is crazy. No one should ever be doing that. I repeat. NEVER freaking do that! It’s not worth it. And when you suffer from a mental illness, it can drive you even more down the hole of no return. A) I swear machine based cardio is a form of torture – so yay for self-suffering. B) the result is always one of two things – you either don’t see results and you start loathing yourself even more, thinking you’re just a loser who can’t lose a single pound and you give up. Or, you start to see results and become obsessive, driving up the amount of calories you want to burn, start weirdly competing with the girl next to you on the treadmill, trying to run faster or longer than her to prove you have some worth. Both results feed into negativity, driving self-hatred. Only wanting to be better, wanting to give up when it seems better will never be possible.
Lets fast-forward a bit to the present. Working out is still my everything, but it’s everything because it’s when I feel the freest. It’s no longer this restrictive state of torture. I actually adore working out. Seriously. I find it enjoyable and exhilarating. My days actually don’t feel complete if I don’t do any kind of physical activity. Quite the dramatic difference. I know. Because guess what? I’ve been finding fitness “routines” I actually LOVE doing. Working out isn’t something I feel like I have to do. I’m no longer running for an hour because I ate 4 Oreos. Working out isn’t a punishment. It’s a reward. It’s growth. It’s a personal challenge. It allows me to appreciate my body and all the amazing things it can accomplish. Heck, all the things it does for me on a daily basis. Talk about body positivity. This is where self-love starts to thrive. Realizing your body isn’t just a placeholder for your being. That how it looks doesn’t mean shit. That you have it so that you can have life, so that you can live. I get it though. Maybe you hate your thighs, but maybe those thighs let you bar squat twice your bodyweight. Maybe you hate your arms, but today, you finally did 10 full pushups without stopping. Maybe it’s your tummy that bothers you, but guess what, you just had a kid. That tummy brought life into this world, and you going to yoga tonight is going to help tone both your body and your mind. You are capable of so many physical feats it’s crazy. Give yourself credit for it. Because I guarantee you don’t give yourself enough credit for most of the things you do.
I believe that no matter who you are, where you are on your “fit journey”, whatever lifestyle you’re living, there is some kind of exercise that will make your heart sing. Fitness companies and gyms are pulling out all the stops now to cater to specific workout audiences. You used to dance and want to tone? Go take a barré class. The idea of someone yelling at your face and doing body weight exercises excites you? Go take a boot camp class. Wanna zen out but also sweat out a river of toxins? Hot yoga is for you. Wonder if you could have made it as a stripper, but a classy toned stripper? There are freaking fitness pole classes. A couple of Fridays ago, my friend Maggie and I tried a trampoline class. You read that right. A freaking TRAMPOLINE class. We got to be Tigger for a sweat sesh and it was killer and it was amazing.
Moral of the story. Quit adding to your misery. Get off the treadmill (unless that’s your thing, then werk it gurl). Because the weird thing about finding something you like, you stop making excuses not to go. Find a class with a teacher you just love. Get a friend to force you to go to a barré class you’d otherwise be more inclined to skip. Find a gym that feels like home. Obviously working out is good for your body, but if you are suffering from a mental illness, being active helps your brain in more ways than you could realize. We learned about the TIPP skills in therapy. TIPP skills are extremely beneficial as they can distract you when your brain is getting really bad (panic attack or anxiety, sudden episode of extreme sadness or anger, etc). The I in TIPP stands for Intense exercise. If you find yourself suffering or about to spiral, all it takes is 10 minutes of sprint intervals (or high knees or burpees or jumping jacks or whatever gets your heart racing) before you start to focus on your breathing and your body and as a result, your brain begins to chill. It forgets about being super sad and becomes concerned that your heart can still pump blood to your organs. Trust me, I know that sounds terrible. The last thing you want to do when your sad is do 10 minutes of burpees. But if you just trust me, those ten minutes can change the next few hours of your day. Those next few hours of every day can change your week. Better weeks can make a better year. Better years mean a better life. Small steps make the journey. You can do it. I believe in you.