Journey to the Gym: How Exercising as Self-Care Really Works

I never thought I’d say this, but the gym brings me a special kind of zen. I find its disorder comforting. The one I go to is especially painful to look at. Its branding is marked by bright, kitschy colors and overly encouraging slogans left and right. You can do it!!!!!!! You feel like you’re in a kids’ party place or some kind of large, interactive cult. Maybe even a carnival-themed dystopian society where electricity relies on manpower.

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flickr, available for use

If you know me, this sounds like the kind of spot I would actively avoid. But after being coaxed into getting a membership, I learned its true beauty. The insistent branding no longer hurt my eyes. There has to be some kind of psychology to it, but the ugly colors motivate me. The large crowds do the same, and go even further to make me feel comforted in my anonymity. I am part of a whole — a little all-black-sportswear-clad cog in a wheel — but also completely alone (unless I’m with a friend), blocking everything out with Drake’s “HYFR.”

The few gym rats I do recognize, mostly staff, are some of the nicest people I’ve met. Not intimidating at all. I guess I had this warped perception that everyone who holds a gym membership is swole. Obviously meatheads. I was scared by this idea, imagining my frail self getting snapped in half by a less attractive Channing Tatum lookalike. But, unsurprisingly, the gym is full of people of all shapes and sizes, ages, even ethnicities. I probably experience more diversity at the gym on some days than anywhere else. I feel welcome in the most unlikely of places.

But really, the best part is recognizing that I’m engaging in a form of self-care that I had so long neglected. And by so long, I mean most of my twenty-five years of existence. I can’t tell you how many times my Fitbit-loving dad would nudge me to get off the Internet and exercise. And how many times I would shrug it off. I’m active, I thought, as in I’m generally fit — in fact, I’m skinny, and get complimented for my physique — and move around on occasion. That surely counts as exercise. It didn’t, though, and I was denying myself a vital part of being healthy.

Health relies on self-care, deliberate actions one takes to tend to his or her physical, mental and emotional well-being. According to University of Kentucky, exercise is one of the most overlooked types of self-care. The Center for Disease Control recommends at least 30 minutes of exercise 5 times a week. This benefits individuals both physically and mentally, curbing physical and mental illnesses, boosting mood, strengthening bones and muscles, clearing skin and so on. And, of course, exercising doesn’t have to involve a gym in any capacity. While I am all about the offbeat appeal of my gym, there are a million other ways to exercise, from inside your home to the great outdoors.

What first pushed me to better my self-care and finally take my dad’s advice is my anxiety. It’s sometimes well under control but other times low-key crippling. When I have the occasional panic attack, no matter how much I try to rationalize it, a part of me believes I’m dying. This is it. It has to be a stroke. My parents’ friends’ daughter had one at 19 from stress. Ninteen! It can happen to anyone! And those around me have to deal with that. I’ve tried medication, light therapy and some herbal treatments with little to no luck.

It’s common knowledge that exercising is an all-natural, addiction-free way to quell mental afflictions and there is evidence from the National Institute of Health to back that up. But for whatever reason, I never had the motivation to do something so obviously positive for my health. I associated physical activity with sportiness, and always thought of myself as painfully unathletic. When I played softball in elementary school, I got hit in the face during a game and cried. That experience, my other sports team attempts and gym class dodgeball left traumatic marks on me.

I also mostly related working out to losing weight, something I never had to do until recently. Most of my life, I have been trying to gain weight, and figured exercising would be counterproductive. But that’s not true. What I actually needed to do was build strength and muscle mass, something I was severely lacking. Plus, grad school followed by a boozy manic episode got the best of me. It not only made me realize that I, like anyone else, am not immune to gaining weight, but smacked me in the face with the importance of self-care.

In grad school, the pressure of being in LA, 2,000 miles away from home, living alone in an unsafe part of town and having a heavy workload caused me to be generally unhappy. I was stress eating like a manic. Whatever carryout I could get my hands on suddenly became the best part of any given day for me; everything else was sad. I cycled out of depression and into mania when I got back to Cincinnati after graduating, feeling reassured by family, friends and familiarity. I became hypersocial that summer, going out and drinking four to five times a week. I rarely slept and rarely had time to myself.

When I cycled back into a depressive slump this winter, I had time to reflect on things. I finally realized that I hadn’t been taking care of myself for a long time. It was something that was always on the back of my mind, but something I never wanted to admit to myself. Whether it was finding comfort in food, excessively filling my body with poison, not spending enough time to myself to engage in positive behaviors like reading, resting and exercising, or otherwise, I was hurting myself in small ways and contributing to my anxiety disorder. And this was happening long before grad school, maybe in less obvious ways.

The Atlantic’s article about self-care, “The Internet Wants to Help You Take Care of Yourself,” states: “The push to take stock of your physical and emotional state could be particularly helpful for someone who’s depressed, or whose clinical anxiety is acting up.” So, while it’s only been a few weeks, the exercising has had a pretty immediate endorphin-laced effect on me. And if you’re similarly experiencing some mental issues, you’ll probably notice it right away too. In the moment, it’s a great, mild, numbing high. It’s where I can get a fun and healthy endorphin fix. Afterward, it’s this clarity I haven’t had in a long time.

I can always tell my anxiety is slipping when the fogginess in my head and the tightness in my chest begin to dissipate. It’s starting to happen, slowly, a little more day by day. I feel better about myself; a little sharper, happier and more energized. It could just all be in my head, but in that case, it’s still helping. So my gym, in all of its circus-themed dystopian glory, has become a safe space of sorts for me. It’s a place where I can go to take care of myself and block out of the rest of the world, only to find it slightly more tolerable when I reenter.

Originally written for Acro Collective: CLICK HERE FOR THE STORY.

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