"When I was 11 years old, I was so physically fit that I was one of only a handful of kids at my parochial school to receive the Presidential Physical Fitness Award endorsed by Ronald Reagan. I still have the patch and a certificate from that achievement collecting dust in a picture frame on my bedroom wall. Exercise was easy in those days, not only because I was naturally athletic, but because it was fun, and I didn’t realize I was working out. I was simply taking some extra steps to maintain my position on the fitness leaderboard at school.
Unfortunately, the fun and games ended by the time I reached middle school, when my buddy convinced me to start lifting weights with him in his basement. I soon discovered how incredibly boring exercise can be when taken out of the context of competition. The idea of doing repetitive lifting was just too tedious for a 14-year-old who would rather be playing video games. So I quit.
As I progressed through high school, I had no desire to exercise. I didn't really see a need for it. After all, I wasn't involved in any sports, and I was still in such great condition that I was acing all the physical fitness test with little effort. My gym teacher even had me named the high school student of the month to celebrate my natural abilities. The day before, he pulled me aside and told me that I was the greatest athlete that he had ever seen who didn't play sports—a statement that I took as a compliment when it was meant to be a criticism. I didn’t have time for that stuff. I was an introverted wallflower, not an extroverted jock.
As high school graduation approached, the stress of graduating was starting to get to me. That's when I discovered that I could eat a large pizza in a sitting. The overeating continued through my freshman year of college. And in very little time, I had gained 20 pounds and was starting to feel unhappy with my weight. So, by my sophomore year of college, I decided that it was time to start formally exercising. My exercise of choice was running. I started running around campus and was having some success taking off the pounds. But I found the people on campus to be too distracting during my workouts. In addition, I decided that I wanted to get a job. And working and going to school left me with little energy. So I gave up on running.
By my junior year, I was only working two days a week and I had taken a class that introduced me to tennis. So, I started to play tennis on a regular basis. I really loved tennis. I would regularly play with random people, or against the wall, in the campus courts. The constant sprinting back and forth quickly got me back into shape, but one day the routine came to an end when I heard a “POP!” followed by a stabbing pain. I had injured myself by placing too much stress on my joints. The pain subsided quickly, so I rested for a couple weeks and finally built up enough confidence to return to the court, only to have it happen again. I felt like I just couldn't win. Every time I tried to embrace an exercise routine, there always seemed to be an obstacle in my way so again I quit trying.
Soon, I graduated from college and found myself working full time with a start-up in Cleveland. The biggest downside of the start-up was that you had to do a little bit of everything with little to no reward. You lived on the promise of a better future in exchange for your time and energy. After two years, I was 50 pounds heavier than my weight in high school and seriously stressed out. In addition, the start-up was collapsing and money was disappearing.
One day, the stress finally caught up with me. After playing Frisbee with some extended family, I had a panic attack coupled with a severe migraine. I was having a physical and mental breakdown at the same time. I had never felt so vulnerable in my life. Weeks passed, and the traumatic stress kept me from leaving my bedroom. I was soon out of work and found myself living with my parents waiting for the Grim Reaper. Months passed, and I was still huddled in my bedroom and the stress was now manifesting as real physical pain. In addition, I was starting to become agoraphobic. At this point, you would think I would get some medical help. But I had no insurance and was afraid a diagnosis would financially destroy me. So my only help was found in self-help books and spiritual practices.
Anxiety and depression seemed to be in complete control until one day, while lying in bed, I had an epiphany. It occurred to me that I might be able to improve my situation if I just started doing some exercise again. I decided to start by walking around the neighborhood. The endorphin release from my walks really started to give me confidence again. And after a few months of walking, my dad asked me to come lap swimming with him. I was reluctant at first, but I figured I had nothing to lose. I soon discovered that lap counting, while swimming, was a great way to distract myself. It focused my mind away from my anxiety. I swam an hour a day for three years, got myself back down to a healthy weight, and was even making progress in other parts of my life. I didn’t exactly enjoy swimming, but monitoring my breathing and counting my laps was really effective at keeping me distracted long enough to get an endorphin fix. A fix that made my day manageable.
People were amazed by my physical transformation and the positive shift in my mood. Swimming had turned my life around. But the anxiety and depression just wouldn't let me go. As swimming became more ritualized, it became less effective as a distraction. I slowly noticed my symptoms increasing in severity, making it harder for me to swim. And as instantly as I started, I quit swimming and relapsed back into my previous anxious state. It wasn't as bad this time around because the experience was familiar. But I found myself hiding away and becoming increasingly dependent on family. I took on consulting work here and there, but I found it hard to get myself out the door. This lasted for months. But I was soon reminded that exercise helped me in the past and it could be my salvation again. So, I started working out at home, doing a variety of routines, from jogging in place to lunges and squats, jumping jacks and push-ups. As I slowly regained my confidence, I started to venture outside in the middle of the night and walked for miles in the darkness. Pushing the pain and anxiety to the edge of my limits. Every step was a victory.
Six months of walking passed, and I started to feel like I was gaining control again. It was time to push my comfort zone a little more. I challenged myself to hike a distant park instead of the local neighborhood. At first, the park was overwhelming. But the more that I visited it the more it felt like home. Soon I found myself hiking for hours at a time into the depths of the woods, challenging my fears. Every day that I hiked the park, I felt like a champion. Then, one day, I wondered if I could run and I just started running.
Exercise has been the center of my day ever since I discovered nature. To this day, my favorite thing to do is run through the woods. I do it nearly every day and it never gets old. I run in the heat, the cold, the rain, and the snow. There's something great about exercising in nature that has brought me back to that feeling I had when I was kid, when I didn't know I was working out. I was just enjoying myself.
I believe that nature was the secret ingredient to my workout success. While, I could easily relax in the indoor comforts of a temperature-controlled track, the changing weather and scenery never allow me to fully acclimate. It makes every run feel like a new experience. And with new experiences comes the feeling of true accomplishment. Today, every run is a victory that I can celebrate and use to reinforce a positive outlook on life and push me past my fears.
It's important to note that I finally did get psychological help from a cognitive behavioral therapist. But I only found the courage two years ago. For more than a decade, aside from the support of my friends and family, exercise was the life preserver that kept me afloat.
What inspired you to start working out?
When I hit rock bottom, mentally, physically, and emotionally, I resisted professional treatment out of fear. Instead, I read everything I could find that talked about anxiety and depression. Soon I discovered that diet and exercise were common components in most treatments. This convinced me to change my diet and get myself moving every day.
What was the turning point when you realized you had transformed from an exercise hater to an exercise lover?
The moment I connected nature to exercise, I discovered I love it.
What are your favorite workouts?
I love walking, hiking, and running.
When it comes to exercise, are you a pack trainer or a lone wolf? Or a bit of both?
I'm definitely a lone wolf. To me, exercise is “me time.” Having said that, I love a long walking conversation. I have them all the time with friends.
What’s the piece of workout gear that you can’t live without?
Nice running shoes make all the difference in the world. I've discovered that you need to spend at least $40 on a pair of shoes. Cheaper shoes will fall apart at the seams. Some people will have you believe that you need expensive running shoes, but I’ve hiked and run through all types of terrain and weather for over a decade and I’ve discovered that the only thing important in a shoe is how well it is stitched and the comfort of the fit. I find a nice $40 shoe will last just as long as a $200 shoe. So why pay more?
What songs are on your go-to workout mix?
I don't ever listen to music when I'm running, walking, or hiking. The sounds of nature are all that I need.
What’s your biggest workout obstacle, and how do you overcome it?
The mental obstacles are the most difficult. If I convince myself that I'm going to have a problem doing something, I will manifest a problem. You have to use healthy self-talk when exercising. In addition, you need to learn the difference between strain and pain. For a person like me, who suffers from anxiety, it is often difficult to distinguish the difference. You only learn by pushing yourself past your comfort zone on a regular basis.
What inspires you to work out?
In the earlier years, when I first started dealing with anxiety and depression, exercise was my only escape. These days, my love for nature and that energized feeling you have right after a run are what inspire me to keep moving.
What do you do when you feel as if you’ve hit a plateau or rut?
I don't really concern myself with escalating to another level. I find that it just automatically happens over time if you just keep moving every day. My only goal when I work out is to get enough of a workout to be satisfied. Some days you need to do more to be satisfied, other days require less.
What’s been the biggest benefit to becoming an exercise lover?
The mental benefit. I generally feel mentally motivated after a run. Also, when I am out hiking or running, I often have amazing ideas. It stirs my creative juices.
What advice would you give to someone who hates exercise?
Search for an exercise routine that feels more like an escape than a burden. And focus on developing good health rather than the perfect abs."
--Mike Meyers, 38, Cleveland, Ohio
Photos courtesy of Mike Meyers