There is A LOT of toxicity in gym culture and by proxy, diet culture. So much so that I googled, “fitness memes” and it took me twenty minutes before I could find one that is humorous without being down right degrading to either the person in the picture or the reader.

After years of working in a gym and experiencing a lot of that toxicity up close. The toxic nature of it all made me stop doing anything remotely “fitness” as a response. Any time I’d start to run outside I’d have flashes of shit my boss had said to me or horrible things gym regulars would say as compliments to me. It all made me feel like I was masking. I had forgotten who I was somewhere in there. Then, a series of bad jobs and the pandemic left me spiraling in such a way that my mental health needed to be treated first before I could address my physical appearance changing.

I was just trying to stay alive, keep my kids fed and stay married. My brain never even registered guilt about my expanding waistline because I didn’t need one more thing to be depressed about. I bought clothes that made me feel comfortable and ate things that gave me comfort. I have no regrets about focusing on my mental health over all else. Not once have I felt that I “let myself go” in these last couple years or whatever the fuck society says. That phrase grates my nerves. It’s fat-phobia in a nutshell and it makes me see red when someone says it.

Even now, when I see pictures of me from five years ago, I am not jealous of the slimmer version of me in those pictures. That person was thinner, sure, but was she happy? No. I was running fives miles at a time but I’d cry the whole time. Because I hated that a job I could have enjoyed was bringing me such negativity.

Working out and being into fitness was a “free” hobby that I’ve always indulged in. I floated above all of the gimmicks and focused on how I felt mentally rejuvenated after each run. How I could be having a bad day but going to the gym for a few hours made everything seem less challenging. Even with five dollars to my name, I could put on my shoes and run down the sidewalk until I felt like whatever was bothering me wasn’t so bad after all. Fitness is apart of me. Now that I’m in my thirties, it’s time I stop fooling myself about this. Even with this established fact about my personality, I must tread carefully.

There are a lot of snakes in the grass when it comes to gym and diet culture. A lot of people claiming that one pill/wrap/protein shake/work out style can make you magically a size zero and therefore society will deem you more worthy of love. I met a lot of outwardly attractive people in my gym life that were horrible creatures. If you’re an absolute jerk, it doesn’t matter how many abs you have. I’d smile and take a compliment that was just shitty. Even the way they build each other up in the gym is toxic.

It’s all so normalized no one realizes where the faults lie. I know the human condition makes us want to find our crew, our mates, our chosen families. Gym culture can suck you in that way. I use to get a little weepy while on the stair climber looking over the entire gym with a full heart. We were all there with, what I interpreted, the same goals. To be healthier. That’s the red bow these snakes (to keep with the analogy) tie up in a pretty package as they feed you bullshit to join their MLMs, or CrossFit. The backhanded compliments of, “You look fantastic, what have you done different in your work outs lately?” as if you didn’t look like you had progress before. Discussing how you eat with a stranger because they notice you drinking a vegan protein shake instead of whatever they drink. Sometimes being a gym is high-pressure. Especially for someone who is anxious about being in public spaces to begin with.

I worked at a gym that has a catch phrase about being non-judgmental as a policy. In the broader strokes, this company is successful, but if you look closer as a member or staff, it’s all just refashioned judgement in micro-doses. I drank the Kool-Aid and really tried hard to make members and staff all feel welcomed because fitness as a hobby had always brought me joy. I would tell a man holding a fifty pound weight that he needed to put a shirt on because we have a no nipple policy. I felt like I was policing away the toxic behaviors in an atmosphere that should welcome everyone. Then my boss would come in and call me small minded or incapable of doing something because I’m a woman. He told me that I shouldn’t choose my kids over my job when I refused to work my afternoon shift and an overnight shift too. The hypocritical double standards were just too much for me. I couldn’t pretend that the job was anything more than a corporate retail position and I was replaceable. A nobody. Nothing to no one. Only people with no soul could ever make it in that type of job.

After publishing three books I feel as if I’ve healed enough mentally to get back into physical health. I’m being careful about how I post about my journey. I’m not posting to shame anyone for not walking. Secretly, I maybe hope to inspire people into finding their own path to physical health but I want them to do it within their own parameters. My current approach to fitness doesn’t involve my looks anymore. I have no goal weight. I don’t have a desired pant size I aspire to fit in. I simply want to be happier and enjoy a hobby I like that has real, not imagined, health benefits too.

How does exercise help depression and anxiety?

Regular exercise may help ease depression and anxiety by:

  • Releasing feel-good endorphins, natural cannabis-like brain chemicals (endogenous cannabinoids) and other natural brain chemicals that can enhance your sense of well-being
  • Taking your mind off worries so you can get away from the cycle of negative thoughts that feed depression and anxiety

Regular exercise has many psychological and emotional benefits, too. It can help you:

  • Gain confidence. Meeting exercise goals or challenges, even small ones, can boost your self-confidence. Getting in shape can also make you feel better about your appearance.
  • Get more social interaction. Exercise and physical activity may give you the chance to meet or socialize with others. Just exchanging a friendly smile or greeting as you walk around your neighborhood can help your mood.
  • Cope in a healthy way. Doing something positive to manage depression or anxiety is a healthy coping strategy. Trying to feel better by drinking alcohol, dwelling on how you feel, or hoping depression or anxiety will go away on its own can lead to worsening symptoms.
Mayo Clinic

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