Weighty Matters on My Mind – Can Weight Lifting & Exercise help Depression?

How many of you have told yourselves that you want to lose 20 lb. by an event that you have in 3 days? Why stop there? Why not lose 10 lb. today? I’ve had so many goals around weight loss – lose 50 lb. by my next birthday; lose 25 lb. by Thanksgiving; lose 15 lb. this week. At the end of the day, many of us set unrealistic goals that ultimately lead to disappointment. So how can we set a goal that we can achieve? How can we feel proud and accomplished instead of defeated? For me, the answer was more than just going to the gym. I found a personal trainer that was unlike the others I had before. Anthony Stewart said, “It’s not just training you’re going to get from me. I’m going to get in your heart from the moment we start talking. That’s what fitness is about.” Since working with him, I’ve been on a journey that has taught me so much about health and has literally and figuratively changed my heart and happiness.

Join a gym? No, Thank you.

Joining a gym had been on my mind every other day for years. I felt a lot of pressure from my family and societal expectations which only added to an abundance of stress. One of the most common questions asked of me around my struggle to lose weight was, “Have you joined a gym?” What is it that people say? LOL-laugh out loud. Or rather, laugh out loud in that  person’s face. Over the years, I worked with 3 personal trainers, joined 6 gyms (more if we count the gyms I joined two or three times) and expressed interest in gym memberships 9 times. If you would have asked me 6 months ago if I exercise, you would see I would become uncomfortable. I would turn my body, fidget and make a facial expression or gesture as though you caught me red-handed at something wrong. If you talked or asked me about working out, I might as well have had a sign that said allergic, danger zone, do not enter.Ask me if I’ve ever lifted weights? Again, LOL.

Webster’s dictionary defines a journey as “an act of traveling from one place to another.” Until recently, my journey to lose weight wasn’t much of a journey at all.There wasn’t much movement going on, literally or figuratively. If I would go to the gym, all I kept thinking was that I can’t do this. I could barely go on the treadmill for 6 minutes without huffing and puffing. I felt ugly and that my clothes were too tight and I would leave. I had so many thoughts and told myself that it wasn’t going to happen for me. I mean if it wasn’t happening overnight, something is wrong with my body, right? I went to the gym yesterday – why doesn’t the shirt fit yet? I went to the gym twice today- shouldn’t I be a different size now? Months would pass and then I would go through the same process. I would join a gym, go one day and then stop. If I ever made it to the gym a 3rd time, that was the limit. After 3 times, well, there was no after. I was done. And so the cycle continued.

People would suggest getting a personal trainer but that totally wasn’t going to happen. I don’t need someone to weigh me and watch me struggle to catch a breath because I’m out of shape. But,I figured I would give it a try so that I could check that off my list. When I first worked with a personal trainer, I had a terrible experience. I felt inadequate, judged, and self-conscious and left feeling worse than I did when I started.  

Weight Lifting and Depression

For years, I have struggled with sleep and emotional regulation. I knew that exercise could improve mental health but knowing it just wasn’t enough for me. I just didn’t believe that going on the treadmill could help depression. Recently, Jama Psychiatry published a meta analysis that found that resistance exercise training significantly reduced depressive symptoms. The study found that besides going to the gym and hopping on a treadmill, strength training and lifting weights specifically helped improve mood and feelings of unworthiness. I wanted to feel better. My life wasn’t enjoyable at the rate I was going. Each year around my birthday, the numbers were definitely changing, but not decreasing, rather increasing. I wasn’t feeling good physically or emotionally. I needed to do something because nothing was working for me.

New Year – New Me

Like many people do around December, I started to think about New Year’s resolutions and joined a gym (again) a little before the New Year. I decided that I would set up a month to month plan so that I could cancel anytime. Whereas in the past, my parents paid for the memberships, this time I didn’t let anyone know what was on the agenda. This time it was about me. I felt motivated but it was a stronger feeling-a feeling of self-determination. I didn’t feel outside voices or pressure from others. I chose to go to the gym, and I decided to join. It was the first time I used my own money to pay a gym membership. I didn’t want to tell anyone close to me because I felt it would no longer be my own experience. I was definitely apprehensive when I joined LA Fitness for the 4th time. What makes this time different? I hate the gym; I hate working out; I hate it all. But having the right trainer influenced my whole self.

A+ Training

I was scheduled to have an assessment with Anthony Stewart. I was already feeling resentment towards the gym and towards the trainer I hadn’t even met yet. I was in no mood to walk into the gym only to hear about how out of shape I am and how much weight I need to lose. But from my first interaction with my trainer, he made this a completely new experience for me. He didn’t try to change my lifestyle, he was able to work within my lifestyle. The night before our appointment, my trainer asked me about my goals. That was the first time anyone has ever asked what my goals are about my own body that it took me by surprise. What does he mean? What are my goals? To lose weight obviously. Little did I know that was just going to be an added plus to working with him.

He took an approach of empowerment, encouragement and realistic success. Anthony didn’t just validate where I was at but met me and joined me in the process. In the beginning, he didn’t push me to do 5 more until I was having trouble breathing but instead he asked me to do just 1 more, and when I did it, he acted as though I had won a marathon. If he saw I was nearing my limit, instead of getting lost in the need  to complete the task, he stayed in the process. It was up to me. It was my accomplishment when I completed the task. Anthony made sure I saw my success. He made sure this journey was my own. It’s my body, my health, my happiness, my heart. 

Anthony took a stance of acceptance. He didn’t make me feel like there was a problem with being a larger size. He didn’t make me feel like I would look better or prettier if I lost weight. He never once mentioned about looking better but instead about being better, doing better, and feeling better. When we sat down, he didn’t ask how many pounds I wanted to lose or when I wanted to lose the weight. Instead, he talked about my health and my heart, getting me in shape to feel good and live a life worth living. He talked about heart rate, zones, stress and inches. We didn’t even talk about numbers around weight until the very end and when we did, Anthony talked about losing body fat not just pounds.

When we did talk weight numbers, I had a moment of shock. For years, I had it in my head that I needed to lose 75 lb. After he assessed my whole self, the reality was that I needed to lose 36 lb. When I saw that number, I was confused. I’m not saying 36 lb. is a little nor easy, but for years I have been walking around thinking I needed to lose practically double. Seeing that number made me realize that I needed to stop listening to the media, the environment and others and stop sending myself messages about what I should be and will never be. This 36 was my number, and I could do it. I assumed we would weigh in every week. Isn’t that what some people do? Weigh themselves weekly? Daily? Or even a few times a day? No, we were going to weigh in once a month. But that’s not how he referred to it -he talked about losing inches not just pounds, and he said that we would take measurements once a month. 

After the first month of working with Anthony, I saw results in numbers that I hadn’t seen in years. The second month, the scale was the same but my body fat and measurements decreased, the numbers that actually matter. As the weeks went on, I didn’t need to weigh in or take measurements to know where I was because clothes were becoming looser. At first, I didn’t recognize it or rather denied it. If I put something on and it felt baggy I just thought I probably stretched it out or sizes run big at this store. But as weeks went on I realized there was a common theme. I wasn’t fitting into an XL anywhere anymore and I had to get the next size down.

Realistic Goals for a Healthy Heart

The last time that we took measurements, I had one month until my birthday. I set a goal for myself that the scale would read a specific number when I turn 28. I told myself every year that I would lose weight by my next birthday but for the first time, I had a goal to lose 4 lb. by my birthday, not 40.

So how do we learn to empower ourselves? Education. I learned how to set realistic goals and that change in perspective happened when I started working with my personal trainer.  I learned that if you have the right trainer, you are getting a leader, motivator, cheerleader and educator. I remember telling Anthony that I don’t know what it’s like to be skinny, I can’t even imagine it. I told him that no matter what I do, I can’t lose weight. He told me that he was sorry but he doesn’t know the word can’t. First things first, eliminate the word can’t, there’s no such thing. He believes it’s foolish to have negative self-talk. Maybe it would be inspiring if it were my birthday and I told you that I’m looking at the number I had in my mind, that I lost those 4 lb. But the truth is my birthday is still a few  days away. I can’t tell you what a scale will say. But I can tell you that I reach my goal everyday.

I didn’t understand what working with Anthony would be like but I knew from the moment I had my assessment that he was going to help me get to where I’ve wanted to be but have never made it there. Anthony said I’ll get there with A Plus training! His attitude, perspective and wisdom has helped completely change my views about health, losing weight and life itself. Finally, my journey didn’t just begin but has continued. I am accomplishing things I never knew I could. Working with a personal trainer has helped me be confident, love myself, and empowered me to be me. One of the many things I have learned over the last 6 months, is that having a personal trainer is all encompassing and can help improve mental health. Having the right  personal trainer isn’t just about someone to help you lose weight, but  about someone who can help you live a life filled with good health, heart and happiness. How I feel about myself stopped being based on how I look but became more about how I feel. Anthony has taught me to set goals differently. Now I no longer focus on losing weight, I focus on gaining a life.

To learn more about mental health visit www.erikaslighthouse.org and help “Get Depression Out of the Dark”

This blog was written by one of our staff, Shira Lichtenstein. Shira has an M.A. in Psychology and is our social media and events coordinator. She is currently pursuing a Masters in social work at The University of Chicago. Shira is passionate about mental health issues and strongly believes that given the right tools and resources, anyone can improve their mental health.