I was an angry, depressed teenage kid.
When it got really bad, I punched holes in my parents’ walls (sorry, Mom and Dad!). I would hit my head against the wall until I felt numb. Other times, I would sprint down their driveway as fast as I could until I melted onto the pavement in a pile of tears and exhaustion.
As I’m sure is true with many people who are hard-wired for depression and anxiety, there were many times in my life where I just had no desire to keep going. I didn’t see the point. I didn’t have enough in my life that I actually cared about (other than getting the hell out of the small town I grew up in as fast as humanly possible), and I didn’t see a lot of hope for the future.
During those angry episodes, I was like a blazing fireball of manic energy with nowhere to put it. When it got really bad, I felt like another force took control over my emotions and I just wanted to disappear into the pain of life.
Years later, I found the only thing that seemed to help: exercise.
Although I played team sports growing up, they were never really my thing, and weren’t the outlet I needed as an angsty, lost kid. I just didn’t care enough and was never invested in the outcome. At the end of my junior year, I quit high school altogether for the seeming oasis of photography school in sunny Southern California, and quickly adopted the attitude that I just wasn’t inherently athletic, so I might as well not do anything that required moving my body.
At my first real job at Starbucks I was probably getting less than 1,000 steps a day and taking full advantage of all the free pastries and sugary drinks. That total lack of movement and poor eating habits made the freshman fifteen more like 15-20.
Unsurprisingly, photography school didn’t turn out to be the magic Disney-style happy ending that I’d hoped for, and I was still lost and depressed. Five colleges and countless changes in my life’s direction later, I finally got sick of feeling bloated, lethargic, and constantly catching glimpses of my muffin top in the mirror.
As many people do, I started working out strictly for appearance reasons—basically, I hated how I looked with or without clothes on. I joined a fancy gym and headed straight to the elliptical machine, rewarding myself with a 20 ounce sugar-laden Jamba Juice afterwards. I could never make any progress, and I had no idea why.
It took me years of experimenting to find my thing, and eventually I stumbled upon high intensity interval training (HIIT) and bodyweight workouts, which were about a thousand times more fun and interesting to me than running (which to this day I absolutely hate) and the elliptical machine (which I still equate to pure torture).
HIIT helped me finally lose my muffin top and build real physical strength, which I will be eternally grateful for. I never want to feel physically weak again, if I can help it.
But even more than physical strength, I discovered a deeper side effect of fitness: the mental benefits of exercise.
When I exercise, I feel better, period.
There are many scientific reasons for this. Exercise releases endorphins, which are “happy chemicals” that make you happier and less stressed. But even though science can explain it, it’s still pretty magical to experience. For me, discovering a joy in movement was really the point when my life began.
At the most basic level, the endorphins from exercise helped me feel better the day of my actual workout. As most people who exercise discover, even if you go into a workout feeling crappy and exhausted, nine times out of ten you actually leave the workout feeling happier and more energized than when you started.
So when I started exercising, I started to get less depressed.
My moods got steadier and less unpredictable. I also had fewer of those angry fireball moments where I needed to get rid of all that balled-up energy, because I was already releasing it through intense HIIT workouts. While at the beginning of my fitness journey I dreaded my workouts and looked for any excuse to skip them, I later started to actually look forward to them when I was feeling depressed or anxious; I recognized that my post-workout self was a lot more reasonable than my pre- or non-workout self.
But the mental benefits didn’t just have an impact on workout days. Regular exercise made me feel better in the moment and immediately following my workout, but soon that carried over into the rest of my life as well. The real benefits came when I started to go after strength and fitness as goals rather than solely focusing on my appearance. I got stronger and more confident in my workouts, and this showed up in all other areas of my life.
Working toward—and succeeding—at challenging exercises like pull ups, handstands, even push ups that I never thought I’d be able to do years before gave me a quiet confidence. I started to see that if I worked hard toward something and didn’t give up, I could do nearly anything I put my mind to.
This notion of a growth versus a fixed mindset was completely new to me, and gave my entire future a rose-tinted glow. If I could learn to do something as difficult as a pull up that I never in a million years thought I’d be able to do when I was younger, what other insanely hard things could I do if I allowed myself to try?
Along these same lines, fitness taught me the concepts of grit and perseverance—basically that if you work hard and stick with something long enough, you can accomplish amazing things.
Nearly a decade after I first started incorporating exercise in my life, I can say with absolute certainty that daily movement is the main thing that keeps me feeling happy, motivated, and keeps depression from creeping back in (most of the time).
Yet my relationship with exercise isn’t always perfect. Although I exercise mostly for positive reasons—to feel strong, confident, happy, because I enjoy it, all those good things—there are times when it does control me a little too much. On Sundays, my one scheduled day of rest each week, I often feel lost, less confident, and as friends and family have come to expect, I’m often a bit of a crab.
If I’m ever injured (which thankfully doesn’t happen very often) or if I’ve been going a little too hard and my body starts showing signs of over training, I go downhill, fast. Those feelings of hopelessness and depression overwhelm me fairly quickly, and negatively affect my work, my relationships, my daily life and my overall motivation.
And yes, I’m very aware of the body’s need for rest and that sometimes the thing it needs most is to rest, not work harder. But my mind is admittedly hooked on exercise, and without it, I struggle.
My relationship with fitness is always evolving and probably always will be, but I can say one thing for sure: without exercise, there is absolutely no way I would be where I am today. Without a doubt, exercise has saved me from a life of hopelessness and constant depression.
I can’t imagine my life without it.
And this, more than anything else, is why my number one goal in life is to help others discover even just a fraction of that same joy in movement as I do. Because all other reasons aside, the mental benefits from regular exercise are life changing.
To find out more about Krista, check out her book The 12 Minute Athlete, on her website, here!
And follow her on Instagram, here!