I'm going to be completely honest here: I used to hate when people recommended exercise as a solution to whatever problems I was facing. Depressed? Work out! Stressed or anxious? Work out! Need to lose weight? Work out!
I'm not saying that these suggestions aren't made from a place of good intention and truth, but I think exercise is a beast that everyone has to approach on their own terms and in their own way.
I want to share my experience because most of the time we're giving the same information and advice and while globally some of it might be true, the actual benefits of exercise can be different for trauma survivors and have benefits other people may not realize/see. But as a reminder, exercise alone isn't going to be the answer to recovery, but it IS a powerful tool.
I've struggled with my weight for most of my life. Mostly because of poor decision making, but at other times it was due to medical conditions. I've yo-yo dieted. Tried the fad diets. And in one particular case, I actually DID lose a significant amount of weight due to a diet. But like all other things I tried -- keeping with it was not sustainable for me.
It also has to be said that I sit for most of my day and have for a very long time in my various jobs. This has contributed greatly to my weight gain and a sedentary lifestyle.
I don't think it's a coincidence that as I've strengthened my mental and emotional health, my physical health has improved as well. I'm in a very transitional phase of my life right now and part of that is witnessing how improvements in different areas of my life have come full circle with my healing.
Before, I looked at exercise in a specific way. I saw it as a torturous activity that was mandated to get me something specific (weight loss, attention, respect, etc.). To say it was an unhealthy relationship is an understatement.
Over the last few months, I've realized that the way I looked at exercise before was dependent on me "getting something" from it. It was a means to an end and not something I wanted to do.
The ironic thing is one I lost that expectation of "getting something" and feeling like exercise was something I "had" to do, I actually began to see so many things I desperately wanted before suddenly happening without even realizing.
My decision to start an exercise program wasn't made in an attempt to lose weight this time (although, I obviously hoped that would be a benefit!), but I thought that since I'd had so much success in getting my mental and emotional health in order, that it was only right to do the same for my body. I went into my exercise program as something that I genuinely wanted to do and had no expectations for myself except to just show up.
Just showing up if half the battle, my friends.
But it worked. And you know what's better than having someone to keep you accountable? When you learn how to keep yourself accountable.
Once I felt like I had the "showing up" part down, I moved onto other expectations that I knew would make both my body and mind stronger. I would give myself new expectations like:
- Those sweet tattoos on your arms? They deserve to be shown off. They deserve to represent your hard work. Badass tattoos deserve badass arms.
- Every day that you get on that mat, you're strengthening your willpower.
- Remember when you could only do 4 pushups? Now you can do 10. How many do you think you can do in another month?
It's insane how many things start to fall into place when you make a decision to change or improve. My willpower has improved. I am losing weight. I am getting stronger.
But there are more important things I’ve gained that I couldn’t have anticipated related to my recovery.
As a survivor, I’ve always struggled with confidence and self esteem. Anyone who knew the High School Jade would agree that I was a girl who constantly worried and cared what people thought. I had a big chest and was either praised for it or made fun of for it. It was a constant internal struggle of appreciating that part of my body and completely hating it. As I got older, I made the decision to stop that internal war (another story for another day). But it was the first step in starting to accept myself and the body I was given.
When I started treating my body with respect (exercise), I noticed I stopped caring so much what others thought of me. I started to appreciate the things my body could do when I pushed it to get stronger.
Kickboxing, in particular, has changed so much for me. Not only is it a form of exercise I enjoy (which has always been a struggle for me), but as I learned the stances, punches, kicks, I started to feel things I haven’t felt in a long time.
Strong and empowered.
Every jab, hook, uppercut, roundhouse kick fuels the fire in my bones. I actually want to come back for the next class. I feel my strength increasing with every strike.
I feel empowered that by the end of my program, I’ll be able to protect myself. That’s not something I take for granted. Especially as a survivor.
Trauma Survivors are often forced to be strong because of their trauma and their past. It’s not necessiarly a choice. But by taking control of our bodies (mentally, emotionally, physically), we are taking back that control. We’re making the decision for ourselves and not because someone else made it for us. Taking back control and getting strong on our own terms is indescribable. And along with that comes the empowerment to keep going. To get stronger. To change what we want to change.
To BE strong because we want to be.
This is not to say that the choice is or will be easy. But nothing worth it ever is, right?
If you’re a trauma survivor, I encourage you to consider how powerful of a tool exercise can be in your recovery. You might gain more than just the “usual” benefits that are touted with moving your body.