Exercising my way to good mental health

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Exercising regularly changed my life. It toned my body, turned fat to muscle, allowed me to enjoy the great outdoors, gave me a safe place to socialise daily, 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 sorry tale 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 NEVER – never, ever, ever – to return to a gym. They were isolationist, judgmental, sweaty places, where no normal human could ever find pleasure. Full of competitive Lycra clad skinny girls, and leering, bicep flexing muscle boys, 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 desperately wanted to lose weight and despite eating less and  walking more, my weight was going UP! How insulting!! So with tear stained reluctance 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.

Over the course of a year – with the help of a lap band and regular exercise – I lost weight. 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, strong and healthy – for a 50 year old woman! But my mental health was plummeting at dizzying speeds. Again, the kindness and support of 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, and by May I’d stopped eating altogether. I lost 13kg in five weeks. I was increasingly happy with the number on the scales – but it was the only spark of happiness in my entire life. 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 hospitalised for a month.

At no point during the lead up to my hospitalisation, did I consider stopping gym classes. I gently exercised an hour a day despite starvation and the inability to function in any other capacity. 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. I could keep going, but stay safe. 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 – 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 am fit, strong and healthy. I still go to gym and treasure the support and love of my trainer and the other women. I feel a sense of community and know that no matter what happens in my day, or my life, 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. I see 70+ year old women lifting weights, rolling on fit balls, boxing, throwing medicine balls and swinging kettle bells. They are amazing. Their lives have changed too.

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.

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