I can sit here and tell you that I wholeheartedly enjoy working out and staying fit, but that would not be honest of me and I try to stay as honest as possible on my blog. The truth is that for much of my life I’ve hated fitness. Maybe it was the school system’s mandatory gym classes that made me feel like I was being forced rather than encouraged to participate in physical activities. Most of my childhood and adolescence was spent either hanging out with friends or locked up in my room writing—that was exactly how I liked it up until I entered university and acquired the inevitable stress of adulthood and post-secondary education.
When I was in my second year I realized that I needed to make some sort of change to myself physically in order to wipe away the mental fog I had been experiencing for a long time. Many people go through self-esteem issues related to their body and I was one of them, knowing that a lot of my hesitance in maturing as a person was due to the fact that I couldn’t quite let go of the body image and bad habits of my childhood. This is my own personal experience and what I knew was necessary to improve my quality of life; I am by no means saying that it applies to everyone. We are all different and have various methods of coping with confidence and self-esteem issues.
IT TAUGHT ME DETERMINATION
Once I had completed my fitness journey, losing a significant amount of weight, I realized that my relationship with myself, food and working out had significantly changed. Within few months of incorporating running into my journey I began to notice a distinct shift in my mental state. I became more determined and focused toward every task in my life. Certain things that seemed impossible before suddenly felt in reach provided a certain amount of work was put in, which I now knew I was capable of doing. Creating goals and sticking to them became much easier because of the workout routine I had created and stuck to for months—what made any other goal different? By scheduling my workout days, it made it much easier to then schedule more things and stay consistent with my progress because I was now able to be mentally active as well as physically active.
IT HELPED ME BALANCE MY HORMONES & STRESS LEVELS
As I’ve mentioned before on my blog, I am very prone to stress and minute anxiety. I have never been diagnosed with a disorder, but my stress levels have been enough to cause physical ailments as well as the overwhelming mental ones many people suffer with. I am going to come out and say it right now; I do not like getting up off my couch and participate in an activity that gives me cramps and leaves me out of breath. There, I said it. BUT, after I do I am showered with the benefits that so many doctors and fitness experts describe. The most prominent one is the release of endorphins, giving you that “runners high”, as they call it. I always thought it was an exaggeration from people who were trying to justify why they were putting themselves through torture, but as my workout routine became more consistent and I kept to it for a few months the effects were incredibly noticeable. The insignificant worries I had before consistently working out, the ones that left me with a pit in my stomach and the overwhelming feeling of dread, no longer seemed important. Whatever worry popped into my head, an equally convincing part of me would counteract it by indicating that it could be handled.
Once I started working full-time and didn’t have much time in the day to relax, I began slacking on my workouts and slowly, but surely, the stress and anxiety I used to feel began creeping back into my life. This then began to manifest itself physically with medical ailments that didn’t seem to want to stop no matter what medications I took to prevent them. Being the millennial that I am, I took to the internet for answers and found a word that has now become prominent in my life—Cortisol.
A lot of my research about cortisol comes from the Psychology Today study [here], mixed in with a few other. To paraphrase everything I've read so far, cortisol is the stress hormone that regulates all your other hormones. When your cortisol levels are out of whack, so are the rest of them which can lead to physical issues as well as mental ones. The most effective way to regulate cortisol levels is to submit to your natural fight or flight response in times of stress. When you encounter a scary or stressful situation (whether it be harmful or mundane work life drama), your cortisol shoots up, inciting the fight or flight reaction in us as it would have in prehistorical times. Our hearts begin to race and we sweat in anticipation of taking one of those two actions. However, since we are no longer cave-people and many of us in the western world have cushy lives, actually ‘fighting or taking flight’ doesn’t really occur. That is where exercise comes in. All your mind really wants is a release to the spike in stress that left you feeling anxious. By running or jogging for 20 minutes that necessity of flight has been satisfied and your cortisol levels are dropped back down.
Once I read a few articles explaining this, it all began to make a bit more sense as to why I felt so driven, relaxed, and in control when I had a steady workout routine. Of course, I am not a registered doctor or fitness expert, so you should always get professional consultation on any matters regarding your physical and mental health. However, it is interesting to take note on how our minds and bodies can react to something as simple as missing a deadline or making an error at work that can lead to much greater imbalances in us.
IT IMPROVED MY SELF-IMAGE
The last point I want to make about how working out has changed me mentally is that my overall self-image of who I am on the inside and how I look on the outside has been amalgamated. I no longer feel disjointed as a person because I’ve finally been able to match my appearance to who I am on the inside through my own perseverance. It’s quite a powerful feeling when you realize you are capable of self-reflection and improvement at your own will and not the will of anyone else. Yes, magazine and the media can tell you to look a certain way but just because you are making the efforts to change something you don’t like about yourself does not mean you are subscribing to a vapid ideology and its influence.
I think it’s important to understand that before you start any sort of change, whether physical or mental, that it is done by your own volition. For me, becoming a more active person was not a path I took because I wanted to be considered a “gym rat”, but rather because the after-effects were worth it to me. Your journey is your own despite the perception of anyone else. All that matters is the way you see yourself.
How was fitness changed your perception? Is there any other activity that has taken you on a journey of self-improvement and discovery?