Strength training for my mental health: why my workouts aren’t for my body, but for my mind

Posted by for Strong Women

What we look like should have no impact on our workout routine. We should all be moving for reasons bigger than that, says Stylist’s fitness writer Chloe Gray. 

The 25 July was a Saturday, but I still woke up at 7AM. I was in my black high-waisted leggings and Nikes with a coffee in hand within minutes, and had left my flat before it was even warm enough to head out without a hoodie on. I was heading to the gym, for the first time in four months.

Upon my return, my housemate asked me how it felt to be back at the gym. “I feel like a new woman!” I exclaimed. “I really needed that workout.”

“But you don’t need to workout,” he replied. “Look at you, you’re fine.” 

What was it about this line that made my mood come crashing down? Why was I so annoyed that I was being told I didn’t need to move my body? I’ll tell you why: it was his assumption that going to the gym (or working out in general) was to see physical change. “Look at you” being the words that really deafened me. 

It’s taken me years to break the mindset that was drummed into me as a 90s child that exercise, especially for women, was about changing my body to carve it into society’s expectations of what a body should look like. It’s 2020 and now more than ever I know that’s not why I work out. So how did he get it so wrong? 

“The way exercise and sport has been marketed and shown to women and girls in the past has meant many of us believe the only reason or motivation for women to engage in it is to lose weight through gruelling activity – this isn’t the case,” reminds Kate Dale from This Girl Can, the campaign inspiring more women into exercise. “All women should be free to focus on their own motivations to exercise: there’s so much to gain from being active, like feeling healthier, having better mental and emotional health, flexibility, building strength and, most importantly, having fun.

“This Girl Can focuses on women being active in their own chosen way. Dancing in the kitchen, lifting weights in the garage or local gym, bouncing on the trampoline with your children – you name it, it is for you, too, no matter your shape, size or ability.”

I first stepped into the gym at 18 years old. Before this, my only experience of exercise was school PE lessons and the less said about that, the better. Bar the few girls who signed up to the hockey team, most of us tried to hide at the back of the rounders batting line out of embarrassment, it was always hammered home that exercise had physical benefits. Nothing was ever mentioned about lifting weights for a strong mind, or doing yoga to stretch away the day’s stresses. Exercise was sold as a gruelling way to ‘fix’ ourselves, physically. 

Because of this, I spent years not knowing how a walk in fresh air could help when I had a cold, how yoga could ease period pain, that lifting weights would support my sore, twisted spine, that it could would introduce me to a community of likeminded women who would become friends for life. And, most importantly, I didn’t experience the utter joy that movement could bring.

After a few months of consistent training, I eventually realised that what mattered was that my body was doing something powerful. That my mental health was improving. That I was stronger physically, sure, but also mentally, realising that I could stick up for myself and my beliefs more easily. 

I cared so much less about what other people thought because I realised that I could do things beyond the box they had put me in: no one expects a 5ft1 girl to be able to squat weights like I’ve trained myself to. Imagine all the other things I’m capable of, too.

Six years later, and the gym is a place that I have learnt the most about strength, about progress, about ‘self-care’. When I was no longer to spend time at the gym during lockdown, I was worried. Maybe a bit worried about my muscles and my strength, sure, but also about my mental health, my ‘me’ time, my back ache, my tight hips. I picked up running, and I also panic bought some overpriced dumbbells to do some workouts with, but it didn’t compare.

When I said that I needed to go back to the gym, it wasn’t for vanity or fix what is perceived as a physical flaw. I meant that I needed to get back to lifting heavy weights so that my body worked the way I like it to and to get back that sense of achievement I so missed. I needed to get back to the gym to get back to that confident, no-nonsense version of myself that I embodied after lifting weights, seeing my gym friends and pumping endorphins around my body. 

You might not need a gym to get this feeling – perhaps the tennis court is where you thrive, or it’s during 20k runs that you let off steam. But the fact is that But the fact is, that most people enjoy having exercise in their life for one reason or another. As humans, we are evolutionarily designed to move. Yet exercise has been made into such a loaded activity with so many barriers to access.  When I think about that too much, I get angry. But the point is that we should be moving and it’s no one else’s place to tell us how much we should or should not do so based on our physical features.

On that morning in late July, I told my housemate that, in fact, I did need that session. That my body and brain already felt better. He understood how his comments could be misinterpreted. I just wish someone had given us all the memo sooner. 

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Images: Getty

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