How Strength Training Helped Me Trust My Body—And Confront My Depression
She thought she hated exercise. But when this 22-year-old decided to give weight lifting a try, she tapped into a reserve of physical and emotional strength that's helped her cope with her lifelong mood disorder.
In June, three days into my summer internship, I decided to start strength training for the first time in my life. It was a Thursday morning when I marched into the gym nearest to my office and filled out the forms for a membership.
Signing up at the gym was not easy. It was not a glorious moment of self-congratulatory fist-pumping. I didn’t do it because anyone else encouraged me to. What really happened is that in the spring, I had hit something resembling rock bottom with my depression. I'd begun to fear that I would become one of those depressed people who can’t keep a job, that I would lose my position as an intern at Health as quickly as I had started it.
I had tried so many other tactics to deal with my depression but not this one. So I gave it a shot.
The battle begins
I wasn't diagnosed with major depression (one of many types of the disease) until eighth grade, but the earliest signs of the illness surfaced when I was five. I absolutely hated going to school and cried a lot—usually during the day, and always after school—all the way through 7th grade.
In adolescence I was very shy, and I was preoccupied with being thin. At age 13, a doctor finally gave me a depression diagnosis. I was prescribed medication, which I’ve taken ever since. After that, things seemed to get better. I had always been at the top of my class, and in 8th grade I landed a cute and popular boyfriend, which made school much more tolerable. People in the upper echelons of middle school looked me in the eye, and not just when they needed a math partner. But I was still depressed.
Depression comes and goes, and it doesn’t matter what else is happening around you. I have been deeply depressed during both difficult times, like my parents’ protracted divorce when I was in high school, and at times when my life was objectively great, with academic, professional, and social success. But one of the only constants in my depression was the advice I got from other people: Why don’t you try exercising?
Reconsidering the weight rack
There is almost nothing a depressed person wants to hear less than “You should go to the gym, that will help.” That's especially true if the depressed person is already preoccupied with weight. Despite my interest in being thin, I have never, never, ever been interested in working out.
I always loathed exercise, largely because I assumed it meant running or doing crunches. Strength training was something I never considered. As a woman, most of the emphasis I've seen when it comes to fitness has been on cardio. In middle school I would occasionally run on the treadmill to burn calories, but I hated every minute of it.
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To me, the gym wasn’t a place to get strong; it was a place to get thin. As anyone who has ever met me or even seen me on the street knows, I have absolutely no hand-eye coordination, so team sports and any kind of dancing are out of the question.
But my attitude shifted after being at Health those first few days. I started to notice many stories about women who touted strength training as the best workout they’d ever tried. One thing in particular struck me: these women were very candid about how long it takes to build muscle. Strength training wasn't a miracle cure or 30-day fix. The women who saw results talked about long months of slow change, of realizing you're getting stronger and more fit when you can lift a heavier weight.
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Having tried so many get-happy-quick schemes while battling depression, I finally realized that if I was going to succeed in making some changes, maybe this was worth trying.
Building strength and power
Strength training is humbling. Realizing that I couldn’t complete a circuit with weights over five pounds was profoundly humbling. But going to bed that first night knowing that I had finished an actual strength-training circuit was bizarrely empowering.
Depression can make the most minor activities feel like near-impossible feats of strength. Leaving my apartment in the morning can be incredibly hard for me. If I don’t have pressing responsibilities, it can take me hours to force myself out of the house. You’ve probably read articles about depressed people, painting them as sad, pathetic creatures who have trouble showering or brushing their teeth or making meals for themselves. That’s all real, too, at least for me.
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But strength training has taught me a very simple and very potent lesson: I can do things I never, ever thought I could do. I can build muscles that I didn’t know I had. I can imagine ways of living with and handling depression that I didn't know were open to me. It's painfully clichéd, but the truth is that strength training has shown me that I am stronger, mentally, than I ever thought I could be.
I still have depression, and I will probably have depression for the rest of my life. Nothing short of a brain transplant is going to change that. But going to the gym has become one of my coping mechanisms. It's one that I'm still working on, but that's the crazy part: I'm actually working on it. I'm working on getting stronger, and just knowing that I'm capable of committing to that kind of a slow process helps me have faith in myself when I'm feeling trapped by self-doubts.
My internship at Health has ended, and I've just moved to a new town for graduate school, which has thrown a bit of a wrench into my gym routine. My first instinct is to feel guilty and beat myself up for taking time off to adjust to school before going back to the weight room. But I keep reminding myself that exercise has to fit into a greater life. I have to remind myself I've come a long way from where I started.
If anyone else with depression is reading this, I hope you can allow yourself to trust your body. I hope I can encourage you to consider exploring the relationship between physical and mental health. I hope you'll trust that it can show you how much stronger you are than you probably think.