Weightlifting help me beat my anxiety, so I can't wait for gyms to reopen07/14/2020
When gyms reopen after their lockdown shut-down, I will be like a child at Christmas come July 25.
Home workouts have got me through lockdown but my mental health has been hit hard at times and as a naturally anxious person, it’s been difficult. I’ve found myself consumed with worries about my family’s health, the state the country will be left in economically – and what this means for my future.
Weight training is the thing that sorts out my mental health when it’s at its worst – and now there’s nothing I crave more than getting back into the gym, and the heavy weights that have become my mental health lifeline.
I was always one of the last in cross country at school, and I used to get my mum to write me a different sick note every week for swimming lessons because I hated getting my hair wet.
As a teenager, I found exercise hard, and scary. The teachers were mean and discouraging unless you were one of the sporty girls, and I quickly lost any fitness levels I had.
Then somewhere in my mid-twenties, working as a journalist in London, my world became engulfed by anxiety. Looking back now, I was burning out. I thought that the constant tingling in my hands and feet was normal, and that feeling like I was unable to breathe properly during a conversation with my boss was just how it was meant to be.
I thought I had to put up with the fact that I got really nervous around people I didn’t know very well, and that I often woke up, panicking, my heart racing, in the middle of the night. My weekends were spent drinking and partying to get away from how stressed I was – though I didn’t realise that alcohol only made my mental health worse.
To try and feel a bit better, I signed up to a gym near work – I’d seen articles about the magical benefits of exercise in magazines – and I began to slog my guts out on the cross trainer or the treadmill, battling against the gym machines.
I was truly terrible at running, but the act of moving my body would give me a little respite and time out from my over-active brain… before I headed out drinking at the weekend with my friends again.
Things came to a head in 2015, when I was 27.
I had started to dread hanging out with friends. I’d get really anxious and overthink every little thing I said or did. I was suffering from bad social anxiety, made worse when I drank, though I masked it well, and people didn’t seem to notice it. But inside I was crumbling.
I ended up going for a course of cognitive behavioural therapy, after I confided in my GP that I was having panic attacks in the middle of the night.
My therapist taught me that I could slow down and say no to social invitations and that my friends wouldn’t think I was a bad person for doing so. Once I believed her, I wondered what I could be doing for myself in the time I wasn’t at house parties or pubs.
This was when the sea change happened. I booked my first session with a personal trainer, for a Saturday morning, when I knew I’d normally still be in bed with a hangover. If I had a session booked, then I had to stay in and avoid G&Ts on the Friday night, I told myself.
I signed up with a female personal trainer (PT) called Kerry-Ann, because I felt more comfortable with a woman showing me the ropes.
I found the weights section, full of testosterone-fuelled men, steroid-y men, terrifying. It wasn’t female-friendly, and apart from the odd girl with an amazing six pack, I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb there.
Plus I got stared at, which is something that any girl in the gym wearing tight leggings will probably relate to.
The first session was immeasurably hard, and lifting weights physically hurt, but in a good way. What was really encouraging, was that I quickly felt, unlike running, I had a natural aptitude for lifting and the post-lifting endorphin rush was something I’d never felt before.
It was incredible – better than anything alcohol could make me feel. As I headed home, I remember thinking that I wanted to start all my weekends feeling this good.
While therapy had helped me sort out why my anxiety-prone brain worked in the way it did, weightlifting soon became the tool I used to stop it from getting into a dark place in the first place. With my PT, I learned all the basic weightlifting moves I’d need to tone my body, such as bench presses, deadlifts and upright rows.
Cardio began to get a little easier for me the more I lifted weights, and in turn, my body began to change. My bum got perkier, my arms got more defined, and my stomach got flatter. I wasn’t worried about bulking up – weight training sculpted my body, rather than making me bigger.
Even better, my mental health was improving too.
As I progressed from light weights to heavier ones, I began to feel more powerful in myself, physically and mentally. My moods changed, and I began to feel – whisper it – happy again.
I’d often considered asking my doctor for anti-anxiety medication, but within months, there was no need. I’d still go for the odd drink with friends but would avoid boozing enough to give me a hangover, favouring endorphins instead to lift me up.
Of course, lifting weights without my trainer there was sometimes still scary. One time, a huge, pumped-up man told me that he admired my work ethic, but that I was lifting a weight wrong. As he mansplained to me something that I knew perfectly well, I felt angry. Would he do this to another guy? I guessed not.
And there were countless times I would see guys eyeballing me in the mirrors as I did my squats. It was unnerving, so I’d often find myself carting my weights across the gym to a quieter part, nearby to other women, where I felt safer.
In November 2019, I began working out at a local gym in Peckham, on the recommendation of my best friend. I thought it would be fun for us to train together, but as soon as I started I realised the best thing was how unisex the gym was. I began training there four or five times a week, and I have never felt my mind work better.
But while my anxiety disorder is something that will stay with me for life, I finally feel like I have a handle on it.
To anyone who thinks it’s irresponsible to be going back to the gym post-lockdown, I beg to differ. Of course, if I’m not satisfied with the cleanliness at my gym I’ll give it a miss, but so far, countries with low infection rates seem to be OK to open up their gyms again and being strong mentally and physically is important in the fight against the virus.
People can lift at home, but they need to be careful of injury. I invested in a set of dumbells and kettlebells at the start of lockdown, but these have been selling out and hard to find online, and you’ll never get the full range of weights at home that you want to use in the gym. Plus you’re never going to buy a squat rack to put in your bedroom!
It’s much better to lift when your PT or a class supervisor is there to make sure your form is right.
I spent years consumed by anxiety, unaware that it didn’t have to be that way if only I could treat my mind and body properly. I only wish I’d started lifting earlier, as it’s transformed me into a happy, confident and healthy person, inside and out.
Oh, and I still suck at running – even after four months to get better at it. So I will be at the front of the weights queue next weekend – race you to the kettle-bells.
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