Why Joining a Gym Was Important for My Mental Health Recovery
Editor’s note: If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741-741.
Exercising regularly changed my life. It allowed me to enjoy the great outdoors, gave me a safe place to socialize daily, calmed my anxieties and saved my sanity in more ways than I can possibly count. I honestly don’t know where I would be any more without regular exercise.
Five years ago, I arrived at the door of a women’s only gym that had recently opened. Within minutes of telling my story to the gym owner, we were both in tears. I’d tried everything. Strength training is what I needed, she said. Get strong — in body, mind and spirit. Two decades earlier, I had sworn I would never — never, ever, ever — return to a gym. I believed they were isolationist, judgmental sweaty places, where no normal human could ever find pleasure. I believed they were full of competitive lycra-clad girls, and leering, bicep-flexing muscle boys. It seemed like it was more about narcissism than nurture. That had been my experience of many gyms. And I was never going back.
Fast forward to February 2012 and I was desperate. I signed up for a membership. And I turned up. And I fell in love. Not with the exercise — that would come later — but with the people. It was a small local gym, where the primary clientele were middle aged women of every shape, size, athletic ability and socioeconomic status. They were just like me. They were wearing normal clothes — no Lycra in sight — and they were kind, empathetic and understanding. The instructors took time to know every member, and adjusted exercises accordingly. The focus was on building strength, health, flexibility and longevity, not worrying about who was the thinnest, prettiest, strongest or fittest. No competition, just loving support of one another. It takes a village to raise a child and it takes a community to continue to support the inner child we all have. I felt nurtured. And I felt good about myself. I started to really love exercising — it was the highlight of my day.
Fast forward to January 2016 and I was reasonably fit, but my mental health was plummeting at dizzying speeds. The kindness and support of gym staff and clientele at the gym helped me keep my head above water while I was drowning. By March I was restricting my food intake significantly again and by May I’d stopped eating. Because of my eating disorder, I was increasingly happy with the number on the scales, but I was experiencing severe depression, anxiety, panic attacks and frequent daily episodes of self-harm. Suicidal ideation was turning into concrete plans and by early May, I was hospitalized for a month.
My trainer — also a nurse and now a good friend — knew of my physical and mental health limitations, and adjusted my program accordingly. Weights were reduced, rest periods increased, cardio lessened. A close eye was kept on me. The one hour a day I spent at the gym was the highlight of my day and the closest thing I felt to happiness during that entire period of time. It was one hour of the day when the chaos in my head was stilled. I could just be. The continued connection to humanity — to people who genuinely showed love and concern — kept me grounded. I still felt purposeful because going to the gym was often the only reason I would get out of bed for the day.
Fast forward another 12 months and I still go to the gym and treasure the support and love of my trainer and the other women. I feel a sense of community and know no matter what happens in my day, I will always make the time to get to gym — to connect with people and keep my body strong and functional as I travel through middle age and venture into old age.
My husband and I enjoy the opportunity to spend more time together, hiking in the wilderness, enjoying the serenity and beauty of the natural world. I’ve climbed mountains, kayaked and hiked for miles with family and friends. Nature is fantastic, preventative medicine. Strength and fitness are integral to my health and longevity — not for the sake of competition, getting skinny or looking fab in Lycra, but for maintaining and improving my physical and cognitive functions and, more important than anything, finding a community of women who support each other through anything. Women who strive to build each other up, not tear each other down.
I don’t believe I would have survived the depths of my depression without that wider support. I wouldn’t have had the strength to keep going without the watchful eye and expertise of my trainer and friend. Those few moments of light on such dark days blessed my spirit with just enough spark to keep going.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.
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Lead photo via didec.