(This post originally appeared on my tumblr account lilybirdlifts.tumblr.com in June 2015, find it here)
Last week after a particularly rigorous workout I started to feel fatigued and not just physically. As I wrapped up my stretching I could sense tears beginning to form and quickly caught myself- what was going on?
I had just completed a successful lifting session and felt great, but at the same time I was experiencing a feeling of vulnerability and overwhelming heightening of emotional awareness.
Turns out, I am not alone. There is a strong tie between exercise and emotional release and this phenomena is supported by anecdotal evidence and clinical trials held by mental health professionals. At the root of these occurrences are how intricately related human beings mind/body connections are. This may seem far-fetched in a society of people who tend to be disconnected from their physical forms for whatever reason, but as you connect with your body through exercise emotions are awakened in new, and sometimes powerful ways:
The body holds on to feelings, even if it seems the mind has dealt with them. So if a person has the opportunity to relax that area, whatever has been held there can come to the surface. The body wants to complete the emotional experience.
-Karol Ward, therapist
Exercise causes tension to release and endorphins to flow throughout your body so you might feel elated but also emotional at the end of your workout. Whether you are exercising alone or with a group many practices ask you to turn inward and reflect on your present feelings and experiences. These meditative exercises can stir up emotional vulnerability that can also cause you to have intense mental reactions to exercising.
In addition to exercise causing emotional release it also fosters positive trends across many demographics (varied by sex, age, race, socioeconomic status), as discussed in Current Opinion in Psychology:
…Exercise and physical activity are associated with better quality of life and health outcomes. Therefore, assessment and promotion of exercise and physical activity may be beneficial in achieving desired benefits across several populations.
Older adults responded particularly well to 24 week resistance training programs and women also reported a high level of increased emotional satisfaction after increasing their activity levels. These positive effects are not limited to weight training or ‘traditional’ workouts either: mental health benefits were also observed in groups that participated in activities such as hatha yoga and dance classes.
So- the next time you workout or exercise take some time before and after to reflect on your mental state. Review your day, what might be stressing you out (family, friends, work, etc.) and recognize that these issues, no matter how big or small, are within you. You don’t have to search for an answer, or know how to fix them, but simply acknowledging them can be enough to keep your body and mind healthy.
…and remember, you are making a positive change by exercising, no matter how often you do it, so celebrate that choice!
Sources (links to articles within titles)
Bennett, J. (2014, October 20) Why So Many Women are Crying at the Gym.Time.
Stenson, J. (2007, October 2) Moved to tears: workouts and waterworks.MSNBC Online.
(2007, October 4) Another Reason to Exercise: Release Pent-Up Emotions. Pop Sugar.
Penado, F, Dahn J. (March 2005 Issue) Exercise and well-being: a review of mental and physical health benefits associated with physical activity. Current Opinion in Psychiatry.
(this post was written on June 17, 2015 before my first competition and was originally posted on my tumblr account at lilybirdlifts.tumblr.com)
I used to think that motivated, successful people were just special. They woke-up everyday ready to achieve their goals and I would never be like them.
Don’t get me wrong- I’ve achieved a lot and I don’t want to sell myself short. However, in spite of these successes I still didn’t consider myself ‘motivated’ because my mindset was all wrong. I was halfway there but I didn’t have the confidence or self awareness to celebrate what I’d achieved and continue working towards my life goals.
As I train for my first bikini competition I find that I’m learning a lot about how I view the world and myself. This isn’t just about changing my body or walking on stage in a fancy bikini (though that is a part of it!) this is about setting a goal and working tirelessly towards it each and everyday. Doing something that will improve my life forever and allow me to have a more balanced perspective on life. As I’ve been training I’ve learned a few things about motivation that I wanted to share. Like I said, I am not perfect and just started my journey but I think that reflection is a key to success so here we go!
1. No one is as dedicated as they appear
That pro bodybuilder on instagram that you follow, that YouTuber with the perfect body and that girl in the gym who kills it every time- they all have bad days. They might not look like yours but self doubt and less than stellar results and execution happen to everyone, regardless of how successful you appear. I would encourage you to form relationships with your role models so you can witness and experience just how many setbacks they face each day. Just because they have your dream job, body or life does not mean they’ve got it easy. Remember that success and motivation are based off of hard work and practice, not luck.
2. Champions don’t quit
Champions aren’t just naturally winners. I thought for a long time that if I wasn’t born to do something that it was a waste of my time. False. I encountered this at work and in life, so this wasn’t just a fitness or gym mindset. I counted myself out before even trying and that’s a surefire way to fail. If you never start how can you be a success? Whether you’re trying to lose 5 pounds, get promoted, or just live a happier, healthier life you must keep going even if you have a bad day, week or month. How is quitting going to help you reach your goals? It isn’t. It will just become another excuse to give up on yourself, and you should never, ever do that, no matter how low you feel.
3. Just. Keep. Going
Last year I was finishing up graduate school and I was taking a class on linguistics. It was the most challenging class I’d taken and I wanted to quit so badly. In fact, I contacted just about everyone I knew desperately trying to get out of it. The syllabus was huge, the course load demanding and the subject matter was foreign and overwhelming. I couldn’t do this! It was too hard! Turns out that I had to take the class, and once I knew that I got angry. How dare this happen to me! I was so close to graduating and this class was going to ruin everything.
Instead of completely freaking out, I begrudgingly took out that monster syllabus and started reading. I didn’t like it but I knew that without doing the work I was truly doomed. As I started to study class got a little easier and I started to understand more of what we discussed in class. Much to my surprise I was actually interested in some of what I was learning and that encouraged me to go further. I started participating and engaging with my classmates and professor and this newfound interest translated into a deeper understanding of the topics we were learning about and in turn improved my grades. After a difficult semester of long nights completing essays and journal entries I finally took our last exam and earned an A. I was so shocked because I thought that I was for sure going to fail. Was it easy? No. But could I do it? Yes.It just took changing my attitude and putting the work in.
4. Don’t be a victim
Taking on a victim stance happens to us all. There are so many instances in life beyond our control. Our boss can be in a bad mood, a loved one can fall ill or a relationship can crumble. I’m not saying that these life situations shouldn’t make us sad or call for self reflection. Instead I’m encouraging you to think about what you do control and try to work on that. With competing, it’s my diet. I hit my workouts with absolutely no problem and while I don’t binge eat anymore I’ve been known to be indulgent with my serving sizes from time to time. I blame it on a craving or a whim but guess what? Those excuses aren’t going to bring me closer to my goals, so why am I making them?
If I weren’t competing I could be a bit more flexible, but I’ve chosen to do this because it is challenging. I need to be meticulous and accountable because that’s part of the sport. I’m not punishing myself, but instead I’m investing in my success by following through. Try thinking about what you can do to help yourself without being negative. Reflect in a journal, talk to a friend or join a group of like minded individuals. For me I write and have a group of ‘fitness friends’ who raise me up when I’m struggling. Create a net of support for yourself and use it!
At 25 I was a former high school athlete who had stayed relatively active in the years that had passed since college. I had successfully lost 15 pounds after trading in my corporate desk job for a career as a teacher and I relied on cardiovascular activities at the gym (hello, hours of elliptical!) to keep the weight off. I tracked how much food I was eating and if my weight started to creep up I cut down to 1200-1400 calories to get slim quick. I employed these tactics to get down to 132 pounds for my wedding day, and at 5'8.5" that was the smallest I'd ever been in my adult life. But I didn't feel great- I was tired, deprived and unhappy. It was exhausting to think that I would have to go through this process for the rest of my life. Despite losing weight my confidence and self-perception was still terrible. I criticized myself on a daily basis and started to binge eat when I was feeling down- a habit that had clung to me since my insecure teenage years.
In my first year of marriage I gained back ten pounds, and it wasn't just because I spent my weekends eating double cheeseburgers washed down by pitchers of beer. I had an all or nothing mentality about fitness and I chose nothing in that year. I was adjusting to life as a full-time graduate student while I was teaching and I was trying my best to enjoy married life. I reasoned that if I had to restrict my calories and trudge along doing cardio I would just be heavier- end of story. The idea that exercise could help lift the fog of depression and anxiety that I was feeling never occurred to me.
MAKING A CHANGE
After completing my master's degree I started teaching at a new school that was closer to my home in Boston. I had more time and I joined my local YMCA hoping to get reconnected with my body and health. I started off small with no big goals or high hopes. In a few months I started to notice that muscles were becoming visible in my arms and legs- and I loved it. This was surprising to me because growing up I had always wanted to be runway model thin, a look that my athletic frame was never meant to achieve. In the spring of 2016 I worked with a coach that taught me about a new way of dieting called "If It Fits Your Macros" or "Flexible Dieting". I hate to even call what I do now a 'diet' because it has truly been a full scale lifestyle change, not just a series of restrictions or "food rules" like other diets I had tried. Instead of eating 1200 calories I was eating close to 1800 and still losing weight- I couldn't believe it! Not to mention I got to enjoy my favorite treats like ice cream, pizza and bagels while still reaching my goals.
Next up...how I got into bodybuilding & changed my lifestyle for good!
My Fitness Journey Part II
About the Author
Lily lives in the Bay Area of California with her husband. She loves to lift heavy, watch vintage movies and cheer on her fellow warrior queens!