Hey everyone. Before this episode starts, I just wanted to give a quick heads up– content warning, trigger warning– this episode, while it focuses on exercise, does discuss suicide, suicidal ideation, body dysmorphia, and eating disorders.
If those things are difficult topics for you and not something you're able to confront at this moment, that is totally fine. Skip this episode. You can come back to it later if you want to. There's no shame in taking care of yourself. So again, trigger warning: suicide, suicidal ideation, body dysmorphia, and eating disorders.
It's a really good episode. I really enjoyed recording this episode and feel great about what I had to say, but I want to be respectful and considerate of the fact that we are all on our own journeys.
We're only a few episodes into the podcast at the time of recording this. I noticed that I've already used quite a few fitness metaphors in my previous episodes. I love comparing things to fitness, and I often use my own experience with exercise as an illustration for the concepts that I talk about.
What if I told you that I'm not just a gym rat? What if I said that the reason I talk so much about fitness is because I genuinely believe that exercise is a key component of finding fulfillment? That's what we're going to talk about today. We're going to lean into that idea and play around with that concept.
I want to give you clarity on my own philosophy about exercise and my history with fitness and exercise, and transition into talking about how that has grown into being an influential part of my identity, but also how I understand living a fulfilled life.
Right off the bat, the very first thing I want to say is that I do not think exercise has anything to do with losing weight, getting skinny, or looking a certain way. Obviously, when you are exercising, your body undergoes physiological changes, but with where I'm at right now in my life, I think that if you're going to the gym with the priority of, “I want to look like X,” that is almost guaranteed to set you up for failure.
And I think it's such an unhealthy mentality to have to put the value of fitness upon looking a certain way. It's a waste of time. It's a waste of energy, and it is so fraught with problems when it comes to your own mental health and wellbeing. Instead, I view fitness as a way of maintaining, protecting, and caring for my body in a really intimate and profound way.
I'll get into that in a little bit more detail. So before we get there, though, I want to backtrack and talk a little bit about my history with exercise. Growing up as a kid, I was never an athlete. I was more of a mathlete. You know, I was the nerdy kid, the valedictorian. I was great in the classroom, but I absolutely dreaded gym class.
Even in elementary school and middle school, I remember getting so stressed and anxious on days when I had to go to the gym that I would just have these paralyzing stomach pains. And iit even got to the point where, my mother made an appointment for me to go see the doctor, because it was so frequent where I was just constantly in pain and felt awful.
And it was stress. It was severe stress and fear about having to go to gym class. I knew that once I got into gym class, I wasn't going to be able to do pushups like the other boys my age. I had to do them from my knees.
I also have really flat feet, and as I've gotten older, I've learned that I actually don't just have flat feet; I also have a bone deformity in my left foot that causes my heel not to be where it's supposed to be. But anyway, in gym class, you know, I, I had really flat feet. And so when we had to run my feet, slapped the ground and it was loud and uncomfortable.
And everything about gym class made me anxious. It made me so, so nervous because it felt like it was the one part of school that I didn't excel in. And it seemed like such a big deal to me at the time that people would judge me for my body, and the insufficiencies in my body. And as I entered middle school and even into high school, that was amplified for me by the fact that I was a bit more delayed than my peers on hitting puberty and undergoing physical changes.
I remember being 17 and still not having any armpit hair and thinking that was just like horrific. And I was so ashamed of the fact that I did not have armpit hair when my classmates were shaving and already, you know, at the time they seemed so muscular and athletic.
I learned to associate exercise with the really rigid structure of school gym class and comparing myself to others. And I think that that is something that so many of us are bad about even as adults– that element of using fitness as a way to compare ourselves to others. And it's so harmful. I mean, Comparing yourself to others... in general... not great.
It's not going to do much positive for your mental wellbeing. Especially in terms of fitness, like, unless you're Mr. Olympia, there's always going to be someone stronger than you or faster than you. Even Mr. Olympia, there are people stronger than Mr. Olympia, since there's this whole dichotomy between like bodybuilding and strength training, but I won't get into that.
Regardless, that was, that was what I understood exercise to be. I was the chubby kid who hadn't yet gone through puberty, and exercise meant recognizing all the ways in which my body was inferior to the bodies of my peers. And so I really shied away from fitness and from exercise for most of my life. Going through high school and as I started college, it was such a stressful thing to think about. I just, I didn't [exercise]. And, you know, my, my body suffered for it. My sleep patterns were inconsistent. My, you know, to, to give a little bit too much information, my bowels were extra inconsistent and it just, it wasn't great.
Once I got on the puberty bandwagon, I grew rapidly. I went from like 5’4” (162.56 cm) to 6’3” (190.5 cm) in the matter of about a year and a half. Along that way, my body weight stayed pretty much exactly the same. So I went from being kind of short and chubby to being really tall and really, really thin.
And even at my thinnest, I still felt like, “I'm out of shape. People are going to judge me if they see me shirtless.” I had a really warped idea about what I looked like. And, you know, I should add that I, in middle school... there was a period where as much as I hated gym class, I still wasn't ashamed of my body.
But there was like one distinct moment– and I've written about it before a couple of times. I discuss it in an article on the Good Men Project website. I also discuss it in my book, Big Picture Living, because it was, it was a really like mundane but influential event for me.
I went to a really tiny school. The middle school and high school were housed together. We had lunch together and it was so small that all of the boys in middle school in high school could sit together at like two tables. And I wanted so badly to be a part of this core group of cool guys. And I remember one day they were going around the lunch table and they were like playing this really dumb game as, as kids are wont to do, where they would point... I'm trying to remember the crux of the game… Essentially, they would point at the other guys at the table, and if they were skinny, they would call them fat. And if they were fat, they would call them skinny. And for some reason they thought that was hilarious because they would like call each other fat and then pooch out their stomachs, even though, you know, they were real thin and muscular or whatever.
But I remember they were going around the table, I was laughing along with the game with them. They got to me, and they hesitated and, and the, you know, kind of ringleader of the popular boys was like, “hmm...skinny.”
Meaning that he was calling me fat. They laughed, kept moving, probably didn't think anything of it. But for me, that was like the first time I had ever felt real shame about my body and it wasn't just like, “Oh, gym class is stressful.” It's like, “Oh, even outside of gym class, they see me this way and they're judging me for it.”
And it was a barrier for me to be part of the in-crowd that I want to be in. And so that really cast a shadow along a lot of my experience with exercise into my twenties.
I remember my freshman year of college, I had, I had been elected as the events coordinator for the campus LGBTQ organization, and I essentially clawed my way and let a coup to become the president within a couple of months. That's another story. Maybe I'll get into that one day, but regardless, as the president, I had gotten connected with a local organization called Powered with Pride that was trying to get up their inaugural 5k to celebrate during pride week.
And, you know, as, as the president, they had reached out and connected with me. I thought that the delay that ran it was hot. So I, I agreed to spearhead efforts on my campus. I also can't believe I just talked about a hot deal on this podcast, but Hey, that's why the intro comes with the warning that it does. Anyway, that aside, it became a reason for me to start training. You know, I, like I mentioned, I have really flat feet. I’m not really a runner, but I started training myself to be a runner for that 5k. At the same time, I was feeling really, you know, experiencing a lot of like bodily insecurities and thinking that I needed to lose weight.
And so for me, training for the 5k became an excuse to really kind of engage in some extreme dieting and extreme exercise. And when I say extreme, I don't mean that as a positive adjective. I mean, a mental health professional would probably have diagnosed me with an eating disorder at that point.
I counted every single calorie that I consumed and I think I was eating… I added it up one day, and on average, I was eating about 1400 calories per day. That was as a 6’3” 20-year-old, right. I guess at that time, 19 year old. That's not much. That's a dangerously low amount of calories.
And I also forced myself to run upwards of three miles per day because a 5k run, five kilometers is, I believe, 3.25 miles. So I was running more than I'd ever run before. I was eating very little. What I was eating was, you know, what would we stereotypically considered to be health foods. And I think, if I remember correctly, at that time, I weighed about 155 pounds.
Which again, that's not much at all. And yet every time I saw myself in the mirror, I still felt like that kid at the lunch table who had just been told by the popular boys that he was too fat, and I wanted to burn more and get skinnier and get skinnier and get skinnier. And you know, that, that continued on into the next couple of years of my academic life. I would force myself to run as much as possible. I ate an extremely, you know, I was, I was operating at a calorie deficit and it really was a challenge for my body.
And it got to the point where, you know, I think I talked about this, in the last podcast episode I recorded, but there was one day where I went to the gym and something just felt wrong in my shoulder while I was doing an incline bench press.
It didn't hurt at that time, but I just knew, “okay, that felt weird.” I didn't do something correctly there. And as much as that injury sucked and ensured that I could not exercise... Because when I say I “couldn't exercise,” I mean anything that put force on my shoulder hurt so badly. It was a really, really sharp pain.
And so lifting anything that involved, you know, clutching it with my hands... painful. Even running was painful because pumping my arms for more than a couple of minutes made it hurt. I don't think I mentioned this in the last episode, but still today, if I go outside and it's below like 60 degrees, my shoulder will just ache and ache and ache and ache until I warm it back up. And it's only the one shoulder that I hurt that aches like that. So as much as that experience sucked, I think it was really healthy for me that it forced me to stop exercising and brought my workout routine to a complete and abrupt halt.
I recognize that that probably sounds hypocritical since I started this episode by saying exercise is amazing and should be a part of your fulfillment journey. And then I'm saying right now that I'm really glad I had to stop exercising, but the mentality that I was going into the gym with, and every time I started running, my mentality was, “I'm not good enough. I am deficient in some way, my body is wrong. My body is a problem.”
Exercising with that mentality is not going to help you feel fulfilled at all. Not at all. If your Inner belief and the core belief, an element of your own identity that motivates you to exercise, is that you are not enough or that there is something wrong with you, that's a narrative that's going to keep perpetuating itself.
You're not going to change that narrative by subjecting yourself to the behaviors dictated by that narrative. If that narrative says, “You suck. You're not valuable. F*ck you. Go run,” and you go run, the very next day, that inner voice has got to be saying the exact same thing.
It's like, “well, you weren't fast enough. You're still not skinny. Or you're, you know, still got acne on your shoulders and you would be humiliated by your love handles if you took your shirt off, out in public. So you still suck. You're still not good enough. F*ck you. Go run.”
Feeding into that cycle is not going to help you with anything. Anything at all.
So fast forward a little bit in my timeline to 2017. I'll give a really abridged version of what's essentially the intro to Big Picture Living and say that in 2017, I started a new job working West coast business hours. It was fully remote. My partner at the time had always wanted to live in Los Angeles and get into screenwriting, and he had a friend out in LA who offered to find an apartment with us so that we could, you know, split the rent cost and move in with him. And so I agreed to it and it was such a mistake. I made it out to LA and I was miserable. You know, I wasn't happy in my relationship. I was not making enough money to support myself and have fun in LA.
I wasn't really happy with my job either. I was super stressed constantly. I had these goals of going out and getting connected with a writing community or creative community of some kind, but at every turn it just felt like I don't have enough time, I don't have enough money, I don't have enough energy.
And it was super, super isolating. And I I've dealt with depression pretty much my entire life, but my mental health in Los Angeles plummeted. It absolutely hit rock bottom. And there was one particular experience that, really, sticks with me and it informs so much of what I do now. I was essentially walking home from my lunch break one day and I, where we lived– if you're familiar with Los Angeles, I basically lived a quarter of a mile from the Grove, which is a really popular LA landmark, and I would go have lunch at the farmer's market at the Grove– and walking back along Houser (I believe it was either third street or Hauser Boulevard, that I was on... I can't remember which is which… whichever one bisects LaBrea).
But anyway, I was walking back from the Grove. And traffic, as always in LA, was horrendous. And I was waiting for the crosswalk sign so that I could get to the other side of the street where my apartment was and, you know, go back and start working again. And I just remember thinking, “wouldn't it be hilarious if I stepped out in front of one of these Range Rovers? Wouldn't it be hilarious if right as they were, you know, flying through the intersection, I just jumped out?”
And it gave me the sense of relief and I felt like, “yeah, yeah, that's brilliant. That's my, that's my way out. I should just jump in front of one of these cars and let them kill me. That would be the absolute best thing I could do.” Thankfully I guess the universe said, “not yet.” Thankfully, the light changed and we got the walk sign and I just, you know, corralled across the street with the other pedestrians, but it wasn't until probably that night or the next day where I just went, “Oh shit, I almost killed myself.”
I didn't even think, “this is suicidal ideation” or anything like that. I was just thinking, “yeah, this is my way out. Let's do it”. And once it dawned on me that I had almost, you know, I had almost committed suicide. I hit the reset button. I spent several weeks just constantly crying or on the verge of crying.
But, importantly, I made arrangements to move back home and to move into my parents' basement.
What I'm getting to with this, and the reason I share this is because I went and saw my doctor back home here in Kentucky, once I was moved back in with my parents, and explained what I was experiencing with stress and anxiety.
And he immediately started me on escitalopram, more commonly known as Lexapro. And he also asked me if I was getting in any exercise, and at the time I really wasn't. So he said, “okay, you know, we're, we're going to start you on Lexapro. If you can, try and make it a habit to just go for a short walk or go to the gym for 30 minutes and get a little bit more exercise into your routine, and that's really going to help the effects of the Lexapro.”
And I said, “okay, you know what? Yes. I will do anything to not feel that way ever again.” So I got a membership at the local gym. I took my pills every evening after work and I made exercise a part of my routine. And I went into it with no assumptions about what I wanted my body to look like.
And my motivation wasn't, you know, “I need to lose weight. I need to look this way. I need to look that way.” It was, “I want to be happier. I want to feel joy about the fact that I'm alive,” and that wasn't something I was experiencing at that time. And by doing that, my outlook on exercise flipped.
Completely completely. When I allowed myself to exercise for the sake of engaging my body and challenging my body and, you know, noticing where I was growing and how it helped my back feel better during the workday, you know, all these little things that I had never really focused on before, It just...
Exercise became a way for me to relax in the evenings; for me to let go of stress from the workday. It became a way for me to process those really difficult emotions that I needed to process as a part of my healing journey. It gave me an opportunity to sweat and take such a productive method of getting rid of some of that pent up frustration and anger and resentment, and just let it out, just sweat it out and leave it on the gym floor.
Once that started happening, I just kind of said, “I get it. I get why they talk so much about the importance of exercise.”
I get why in Legally Blonde, Elle Woods said, “happy people don't just kill people.” It made so much sense to me. And since then, it's been a really central part of my identity and my experience. And, you know, for me, the hardest part of the COVID pandemic was when the gym's closed. Cause then I had to work out from home and it was such a shift in routine.
And, you know, I didn't have that extra support for my mental health. it was, I was just relying on my pills.
Quick side note: happy pills, antidepressants. Absolutely brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. Never let anybody shame you. If you do take antidepressants or if you want to talk to your doctor about antidepressants, if someone tries to say like, “Oh yeah, no, I, I know someone who took antidepressants and it, it turned them into a zombie and blah, blah, blah. Here are all the reasons why you shouldn't take antidepressants.” Like... f*ck them. F*ck those voices, for real, antidepressants are amazing. As much as I think that our society is overmedicated, I think that if your anxiety and stress and depression impedes your quality of life, there's no reason to avoid talking to your doctor about antidepressants.
I fully recognize that you have to put in work as well. You know, doing the exercising, doing the journaling, seeking therapy, whatever that may be. That's a really important part of managing mental health, but sometimes the pills just make it possible to do that. I avoided antidepressants for the longest time, because I believe the horror stories about like, “Oh, it quote-unquote, turns you into a zombie,” but how would turning into a zombie via medication be any different than sitting on my couch in the dark wishing I just didn't exist? Like… what? In retrospect, it makes no sense, but you know, that's a part of having chronic anxiety and depression. It feels like you're trapped and there's no way out. So, yeah, I'll step off my soap box.
I just wanted to say that I love antidepressants and fully support you talking to your doctor about them. It's great. There are some side effects, but honestly my quality of life has improved in, pretty much every single category since I started taking antidepressants. So you're also welcome to reach out to me and learn more about my experience,
Regardless, my outlook on exercise has changed so much from being that scared kid who was so stressed that he was about to shit himself because he had to go to gym class that day, to being where I am now, where I go to the gym daily. I'm one of the regulars I… I record myself doing dead lifts. I'm one of those guys.
I record myself doing dead lifts and squats. I'm slightly ashamed, but also proud, to admit that. But I digress. What I really wanted to underscore and talk about is when you exercise, You're caring for your body in a way that empowers you to do so much more. And I fully recognize that we all have different experiences with our bodies.
For some people that may be really triggering, really difficult to go to the gym and to exercise. And I fully respect that and I don't want to, you know, encourage anybody to engage in behaviors that can cause a relapse if they have an eating disorder, or, you know, like I said, that's particularly triggering your sense of body dysmorphia.
But what I do want to emphasize is that finding a way to integrate movement and stretching and to keep your muscles engaged and to just, just break a little sweat–– finding a way to incorporate that into your day, pays off in spades.
Not only does it improve your mood, but it also helps you retain and learn new information. It helps you feel less stressed. It helps you sleep better. It reduces chronic pain. You know, a lot of us who are sitting at computers all day, end up with hip pain and back pain and bad posture. Exercise helps to remediate that and undo that.
I like to give reading recommendations and these podcasts, and one book that I really highly recommend checking out is called Spark. Let me look up the author of that really quickly. I'm currently blanking. yeah, so it's called Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. It's by John J. Ratey, MD.
I fully recommend checking that out to learn more about some of the more complex nuances of the neuropsychology, I suppose, or neuroscience, rather of exercise.
If you're into the science-nerd side of things,I definitely recommend checking it out. But regardless whether or not you do a deep dive into the scientific underpinnings of exercise– and by exercise, I mean, anything that does that laundry list of attributes, you know, engaging your muscles, elevating your heart rate, elevating your respiration rate, causing you to break a little bit of a sweat, even if you're just going out and taking a stroll with your dogs or doing some gentle yoga in the mornings, whatever it may be– the outcome of doing that is going to be huge. When your body is in its cared-for, well-maintained position, your mind and your emotions are going to be freer and more malleable. You'll be able to give yourself more fully to other activities.
I think it was Socrates… that sounds right… Oh, I should have double checked this before the episode, but I have a quote written down that I'm 99% sure is attributed to Socrates.
If I'm wrong, feel free to correct me in the comments or send me an email. but the, the quote that I have written down is, “Surely a person of sense would submit to anything like exercise so as to obtain a well-functioning mind and a pleasant happy life.”
Notice that in that quote, Socrates did not say anything about being ripped, looking like one of the gods of Mount Olympus or anything like that.
Sound mind, happy life. All as a by-product of fitness.
My dogs are starting to get a little bit unruly. I've talked a lot about exercise and my own journey with exercise, and I hope that you can take that away and understand that if you look for ways to engage your body and encourage yourself to grow physically and integrate physical challenge into your daily routine, it's going to set you up for such success in the other areas of your life. It only helps. And so, you know, I'll, I'll wrap up by saying if you're not sure how to start, or if you want to chat through some of your own concerns about exercising, just please feel free to email me.
That is an open offer. I'm happy to talk you through, you know, getting started and things to consider. I'm in the process of completing a personal training and nutrition certification. While I don't plan on doing a personal training professionally, if I can use some of that knowledge and some of those skills to help you out, I'm more than happy to do so.
My email is email@example.com. Again, as always, there will be links in the show notes, but, yeah, I cannot overstate the value of exercise. And I hope that sometime a little bit later today, maybe tomorrow... Depends on what time you're listening to this podcast. Is it late? Do you need to go to bed? What's your bedtime?
Regardless, I hope that sometime in the very near future, you'll think about this podcast. You'll go out and break a sweat. You'll get your heart rate up. You'll get moving and you'll see the payoff in the other areas of your life.
He/ Him/ His pronouns. Blake is a writer, gym addict, dog dad, researcher, and general life enthusiast. He's passionate about helping others reach their goals and live happier, more fulfilling lives.
Get regular blog updates directly to your inbox. Stay inspired and motivated with our content created for entrepreneurs, go-getters, and life-lovers. Plus, no spam EVER.
While our audience is predominately male and we primarily write about issues affecting masc-identifying folks, we also think that our content is right for, well, anybody. Regardless of what you were assigned at birth or labels you use/ don't use– you're welcome here!
We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.
© Copyright Self-Himprovement. All rights reserved.