How I Used Fitness to Battle Depression

Ever seen the movie, Julie & Julia?

The protagonist, Julie, feels like she's in a rut; she's never finished that novel, she's stuck in a dead-end job, and all of her high-octane friends are whizzing past her in the career super-highway. 

Never having accomplished anything great, Julie sets out to achieve at least one thing that she can feel proud of: cooking her way through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Recipe by recipe, she blogs her triumphs, setbacks, and experiences. No one reads or cares for her blog, until one day they suddenly do and Julie's life is transformed. 

I can relate to Julie. I've never accomplished anything great. The one great thing I would have accomplished (getting my PhD) didn't happen. I was too depressed to continue.

It turns out that fitness and the Insanity program became my own Julia Child cookbook.

My depression was a direct result of the high-stress environment that was graduate school: the social politics, the never-ending work and striving towards perfectionism, and the debilitating feeling that nothing, no matter what, would ever feel finished or accomplished. Such is the life of a scholar: constantly finding fault in one's own work and seldom having the satisfaction of saying, "I'm done."

Graduate school is not for the faint-hearted. I suppose you have to be "tough" to survive.

My depression started with deep sadness and anxiety. Have you ever had that feeling of being so completely and desperately overwhelmed that you just can't do anything except sob? I had those episodes--frequently, and living in a poor neighborhood in Los Angeles (a far cry from our comfortable small city of Sarasota, FL) did not help. 

I was broke. I was stressed. I was in a city miles away from home;  city where there is a clear-cut line between beautiful and wretched and rich and poor. 

Then I developed rosacea. The condition came about slowly. I'd always had some slight breakouts here and there, so I didn't pay attention. Except--this slight breakout developed into a severe, perpetual breakout across my cheeks and face. 

By my third year of graduate school my face was scarred. I had gray hair at the age of only 25. A general sense of fatigue and sadness became a constant, so much that returning phone calls was even too much to bear.

We made the decision to leave. I could no longer exchange my youth and vitality for a document, no matter how prestigious.

Our move back to Florida helped in some ways: I’d joined a gym and began Zumba (which deserves an entirely different post), we purchased a home, I became focused on regaining my health, and by the end of our first year I’d been offered a job as a teacher making more money than I’d ever seen in my young life.

I knew what being a teacher would mean; I knew it was a job that could once more open the door to depression. This is exactly what happened.

Teaching was graduate school part 2: there were long hours, I took my work home constantly, and the evaluation system gave me anxiety. My second year was worse. Perhaps it was the fact that my school had no access to sunlight or even a glimpse of the outside world, or perhaps it was because I worked with parents who were just as depressed, but I spiraled deeper into my depression.

This time, however, I couldn’t leave. We had bills to pay. If I was going to stay, I had to make sure that I’d dig in my heels and bear it.

I became interested in fitness because I figured that if I could become physically stronger, then the emotional strength would follow.

I decided to do Insanity during the summer of my second year as a teacher. I knew it was the “hardest program on the market.” I knew that I had a track-record with myself of not finishing what I started. I walked away from a PhD—why would a workout program be any different?

I looked upon Insanity as the imperfect Julie looked upon her ideal Julia. I wanted to change myself physically and achieve something I’d never had before: a six-pack. It seemed far-fetched, but why not?

Completing that program was a physical struggle—I woke up earlier, felt like vomiting most times, and barely made it through the workouts. I longed for the rest days. For the first month, I did this day in and day out.

And then something happened—my body began changing. I could do a push-up, I saw that I had abs. and I felt like I had more energy. By the end of the second month I was wearing a sports bra and walking taller.

I didn't stop at Insanity. My goal now is to complete one round of every Beachbody program. I even became a coach so I can pass this on.

If I could compare my battle with depression to climbing a mountain, I can confidently say that I am getting very close to the summit. It's a roller-coaster for some of us, and I have my highs and lows.

The difference is that now the gap between those highs and lows is much smaller, and I feel that if I was able to complete that program, then I have the discipline to do other things, including changing my career.

It isn’t easy; I still work in a job that isn’t a fit for my personality. However, my fitness journey gives me strength each day. Completing Insanity has made me more fearless.

But you know what this fitness journey has actually given me? The desire to take care of myself again. The knowledge that I'm worth every ounce of effort I put into myself. When you do an hour of intense plyometrics, sitting down to create a blog seems easier.

When you do pyramid push-ups with mountain climbers, dealing your negative voices is easier.

I am that Julie, slowly sharing her story and her progress. I decided to do something I could be proud of. Unlike the movie, though, this journey cannot be compressed into 1.5 hours--it continues and is developing.

I will have my transformation and my happy ending, and just like, three years ago I was a graduate student who never imagined where my life would lead, I am now looking forward to how I'll back on life three years from today.  




Remember it's a journey...

Remember it's a journey...

Libet Chang