How Mental Health Affects Fitness

The reality behind moods and fitness

I have always been on the move. I started walking at 9 ½ months of age. Up until almost age 10, my parents would call me the Energizer Bunny because I would do flips and run around the house with so much vigor before bed until I crashed. I was heavily involved in dance, gymnastics, softball, and cheerleading all throughout my school-age years. On top of the sports, I began doing at-home workouts most days throughout high school. I went for jogs outside, did Jillian Michaels tapes, cut workouts out of Shape Magazine, did Pilates videos, and not to mention followed the old-school STEP workouts…yes all of the aforementioned were on VHS. Outside of the videos, I would do abs while watching TV at night, standing leg lifts while working my part-time job at Nordstrom’s, and squats while holding my 15 lb. Boston terrier for added resistance. Needless to say, I loved the endorphin rush of exercise.

Mental fitness paid off

I believe my love for exercise came in part from my father. He was always lifting weights in our garage – I was reminded of this daily because of the noise they’d make when he dropped them (sorry, Dad). He was also jogging every morning, so I would go with him most days. This was a way for us to bond and I began to realize how much sharper I felt mentally after a run. In my younger years, I realized I was hypersensitive and emotional but noticed the exercise helped me feel less of that. I stayed with my workouts all throughout high school and the mental sharpness I felt paid off – I graduated in the top 25 of my class and received a generous scholarship to the University of Iowa.

I lived a fairytale in Cuba
Veradero Beach, 2013

College rolled around and my workouts were still a part of my life, but I started to experience increasing anxiety about making friends, making grades, and meeting boys. I stayed with my workouts, sometimes putting them first before school work. After my sophomore year, I studied abroad in Costa Rica and Cuba for the summer. In Cuba, things were magical. My family is originally from Cuba on my father’s side so I felt a deep sense of heritage and belonging while there. I was so enamored by the experience that I stopped working out for fear I’d miss an opportunity (I did try going for a run once, almost died from the heat, fell on broken concrete, and was chased by little boys). What I noticed was I started to lose weight because I was losing muscle mass and eating less and less. Despite this, I was on a higher level high. I was salsa dancing, drinking Havana Club, smoking cigars, running in the rain, falling in love…I know it sounds like something out of a movie but that is honest to God how it felt. This was my first taste of hypomania.

Depression sunk in

When I got back to the States, my mood dropped like it was hot. I was crying daily, broke up with my boyfriend, secluded myself in my new apartment at school, and continued my trend of not working out because why would I spend the time doing it if I was staying thin while sedentary? I stopped remembering the mental benefit of it. Junior year was a year of many ups and downs, but when I was feeling up, I would start working out – my energy felt really high. This would help with short term symptoms of depression, but did not help the mood issue. Senior year I started gaining the weight I had lost as my body adapted to not working out and I only sporadically went to the gym. I would practice dance in the gym’s studio from time to time and that was the only time I felt normal. I finally sought out a therapist, which only sort of helped because there was a bigger issue needing addressing that only a doctor could diagnose.

Exercise was not on my mind

When I moved to Baltimore after college, I would work out maybe once per week. I felt my schedule was too busy for exercise and I didn’t really feel like working out. I was also dealing with major depression and anxiety which left me feeling glued to my bed or couch after work. Finally, I had enough and saw another therapist who helped me overcome some of my life stressors, but my underlying issues of extreme mood swings were neglected.

And then my workouts increased rapidly

My workouts were slim to none until I joined the gym where I met my boxing coach. Once I found boxing, my moods briefly turned around. It was such a positive release of my anxiety and depression and a place I could channel my high energy into. It felt good to feel good. And then I started feeling over the top good. My underlying, undiagnosed condition was back with a vengeance, and I started becoming reckless. Reckless with my health too – I didn’t care about working out I was too high in the sky for it. Even boxing became difficult to show up for. Everything was difficult to show up for at the time. And then I had a manic episode. Fitness was nowhere near my mind during this time. My boyfriend brought me to the hospital when I started getting out of control. I’m so grateful he did.

Boxing in the hospital brought me peace

My second day in the hospital, my boyfriend showed up to my room with his boxing mitts and my gloves. I sulked down the hallway to the recreation room, not wanting to box, let alone do anything, feeling the slow depressive state kicking in post-high. Yet something in me told me this would be good. He told me to get in my guard. He called the combinations I knew and I’d hit. Jab, cross. Jab, cross, slip, cross. My mind was so focused on boxing that I pushed everything else to the wayside and when we were done, I started sobbing. I was so thankful for this man and this sport that yet again came to me when I needed it most. I realized then more than ever before how much fitness has been a support for me – time and time again it has gotten my mind into a safer place. Boxing, to me, is a meditation because you will screw up no doubt if you do not pay complete attention to what’s in front of you. No room to think of woes or worries.

Positives and negatives bipolar has on my fitness

Boxing saved me and now I get to teach others the wonder of it. My bipolar symptoms have both negatively and positively impacted my journey with fitness. It halted me at times, but it also propelled me at others. The biggest negative influence it has had is that it has made me inconsistent; I’d work out depending on my mood. I now make it a daily habit even if it’ stretching and light movement for 10 minutes. The biggest positive impact it has had is that it has kept my mind lighter and more in tune with the present moment.

Your fitness jouney is not for anyone else but you

I know many others whose mental health parallels their fitness. If you’d like to improve or maintain your mental and physical health, I would highly suggest making working out one of your daily habits. Set an alarm for yourself at the same time every day and even if you get in a few push-ups and a few squats, you’re reinforcing this good habit which will make it easier to do on the really hard days…when you need it most. For those of you who are just starting your fitness journey, I encourage you to stay patient with yourself and do it for the reason that you will be healthier and worry less about the aesthetics – I see many people fail when they harness their energy into looking a certain way because if you do not meet your high standards in the time you’d like to meet them, the disappointment will take your energy away and a cycle begins that gets you nowhere but back to where you started. Fitness should be a personal journey that looks different for everybody, because everybody is different. Take care of YOU for the sole fact that it will make you well. I encourage you to feel proud to have a body and proud just for the fact that you got out of bed today and perhaps did a few pushups or a few squats. Your workouts will steadily improve your mental and physical fitness and making it a part of your everyday life will undoubtedly feed your soul.

With love,
Diana

4 Replies to “How Mental Health Affects Fitness”

  1. Sam Featherstone says: Reply

    Your posts are so honest and insightful. Coming from someone who struggles with mental illness myself and in my family, I just want to say thank you. Your openness is refeshing and I admire the bravery it takes to write like you do.

    1. It is my pleasure, Sam. Thanks for the support, I really appreciate the love and hope that you continue to win in your struggles. <3

  2. So proud of you Di! Would love to hear more about how your workouts affect rational thinking or management of manic episodal behavior!

    1. Great ideas, thanks so much for the feedback! I will definitely include some of that in future posts. Appreciate the support!!

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