De-Stressing at the Gym: How One Horrible Day Led to a Healthy Habit



Natalie Cunniff, Contributing Writer

After returning to my dorm from one of the unluckiest days of my life, the last thing I wanted to see was a citation from Residence Life posted on my door. Was I surprised? Not with the luck I had been having that day. I felt sick to my stomach looking at the bright yellow paper. The citation was only about a violation of decorative string lights on my walls, but as a new freshman, being told that I may have to meet the honor board was a terrifying thought. Frustrated and bewildered, I threw my backpack and crunched up failed Chemistry test on my desk and ran down the hall to my RA’s room.

I walked out of my RA’s room feeling slightly more sane and confident, nevertheless, my day of bad luck continued. I unlocked my dorm door and my heart sank. The pink Himalayan salt lamp on my desk had melted all over my possessions, including my two hundred dollar textbook and my brand new Mac laptop.

I felt like a punching bag and the world kept swinging at me. I could feel myself starting to mentally break. I studied vigorously for a test only to fail, I decorated my room to feel more homelike only to be told its a violation, and two of the most expensive items I owned were ruined by a “stress relieving lamp.” My head was pounding from my thoughts and my hands began to shake. This was an experience like no other. That was what pure stress felt like.

I then did what every 18-year-old adult does; I called my mom for help. I sobbed into the phone and told tell her I was coming home for the weekend. She instructed me to breathe and to take a break from work, before proposing something that I will never forget. “Maybe you should to go to the gym for while to destress,” she said. And so I did.

This is a scenario every new college student will find themselves in; breaking down after a day where everything seems to go wrong and only becomes worse. The stress of these situations can be tremendous on an individual. The subject of maintaining and creating stable mental health is not prioritized in our society. Although I have never experienced stress like this before, I did not know how to handle it because I was I ever taught how to. I felt like crying, skipping class, going home, and even dropping out of college. As dramatic as those feelings may seem, I was experiencing a new and scary situation. My mom’s suggestion for exercise was a blessing. Exercise, this “magic medicine”, was able to help me overcome those feelings of stress and self-doubt. It empowered me to move on with my day with ease. I was blown away by my discovery! Little did I know, the scientific community already determined that exercise benefits mental health.

As someone who works in a gym as a fitness instructor, I can comfortably say that the culture of fitness and exercise is focused around physical appearance and maintaining a fit physique. Most (if not all) of my members at the gym, exercise to lose weight, get toned, or as I often hear, “to get shredded.” The stress of societal standards on a perfect body always manages to creep into peoples thoughts. This is a problem I have seen for years and our society should not behave in this way. Instead, we should concentrate more on the mental benefits of exercise and how it can be used in our lives as a tool for mental health.

Physical improvement is undoubtedly a perk, but there are so many more important reasons why individuals should choose to exercise pertaining to mental health. In fact, obsessing about appearance in exercise may lead to negative mental health problems.

An article written by Nancy A. Piotrowski discusses how individuals with mental disorders such as anorexia nervosa, may implement unhealthy amounts of exercising into their life, wasting workouts true gifts. While the individual’s insecurity of fatness is calmed, this can lead to an unhealthy exercise obsession and physical harm on the body. Another study conducted by Keyes, WoerwagMehta, and Bartholdy, used four separate experiment groups. Each group was labeled the anorexia nervosa outpatients (AN) group, the anorexia nervosa inpatients group, the anxiety group, and healthy controls (HC). By the end of the study, it was reported that both AN groups had “57–92% higher total activity than HCs” and that they had a greater urge to exercise, making “’improving tone’ as important and health and enjoyment as less important.” (pg 1). While there are many benefits of exercise on mental health, it is important to remember that for some individuals, exercise may be a trigger to mental illness. This can be solved by understanding how to safely and appropriately exercise to gain mental health benefits.

What kind and how much exercise one should have, is a question that scientists spend a lot of time researching. The facts are shocking. As stated by Sharma, Madaan, and Petty, “aerobic exercises, including jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, gardening, and dancing,” for at least thirty minutes a day “have been proved to reduce anxiety and depression.” In fact, moderately intense workouts “such as brisk walking for three days a week, is sufficient for these health benefits.” Exercise does not always have to be intense. So before sprinting on the treadmill for an hour, reconsider what your exercise goal is, to make sure it is a safe and positive action. This will leave you feeling stress-free and empowered. It only takes a little bit of movement to make drastic changes in improving mood and relieving stress.

Diving deeper into the science of exercise and mental health, researchers Deslandes, Moraes, Ferreirstate state that “even though exercise itself might act as a stressor,”in everyday stressful circumstances “it has been demonstrated that it reduces the harmful effects of other stressors when performed at moderate intensities.” This single piece of information is one that other members of the scientific community agree with. Piotrowski states how “doctors and specialists recommend an exercise regimen as part of a treatment program for conditions related to anxiety, depression, and stress reduction.” (pg 1). This is because exercise can affect “mental health by releasing endorphins, or hormones that put the body in a pleasurable state” thus making exercise “ naturally reinforcing because endorphins may serve as a positive reinforcer .” (pg 1)

Why should I, a female college student, support using exercise as a tool for better mental health? As a student of a woman-centered university, I know that my peers will notice great improvements in mental health from exercise. I have been teaching group fitness classes and working in a gym for two years. While I am enthusiastic about getting all people to work out, I have recently discovered that I am extremely passionate about helping women gain courage and find a reason to workout other than for looks. I want them to work out for their mental health. As I implied at the beginning of my piece, new situations can be scary and sometimes stressful. Exercise culture is definitely intimidating and may spark these feelings for those who are new to it. But with a little bit of guidance in knowing how to walk around a weight room with confidence, focusing on mental improvement, and not caring about looks is empowering, especially for women. Having a positive gym experience will also lead to a stress-free one. Since I do come from a scientific background as a Nutrition major, I need to back up my case with scientific evidence. Two researchers Grubbs and Carter wrote an article that centers around the “perceived benefit and barrier intensities to exercise in 200 non-exercising female university students” (pg 1). By the end of their study, Grubbs and Carter could conclude that “non-exercising female university students felt strong benefits from exercising accompanied by only relatively fewer barriers.” (pg 1) This study uses females who do not exercise and made them feel mentally and physically stronger. If you feel good about yourself and are confident in your appearance, it will proceed to a positive mindset.

I always go to the gym every day as part of my daily routine to stay healthy and physically active. However, on that stressful day in the first week of October, exercising felt different. During this workout, I lifted heavier and ran on the treadmill faster than I ever had before. As I ran, a surge of excitement coursed through my body as my endorphins rushed through my brain. After that workout, my head was no longer pounding. There was not an ounce of stress left in my body. For the first time in the gym, I felt like I was working for myself in the present, not what caring about how this workout would affect me in the future.

This day was a pivotal moment in not only my journey of exercise, but mental health as well. I was one of those kids who never learned how to support my mental health. While I never experienced this level of stress in high school, if I had, I wouldn’t have known how to deal with it. I only received my mom’s advice because I was at college and had to call her to say that I wanted to go home. Still, I can remember months later about how amazing I felt after my workout. It was like I was on top of the world, ready to face the challenges ahead. Stories like my stressful day prove why exercise should be used as a tool for mental health.