Exercise can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. We asked the BuzzFeed Community to tell us about the times exercise saved their life, either mentally or physically.
There are a lot of great reasons to exercise. And there are a multitude of things you can do that count as physical activity, including walking, dance, hiking, rock climbing, and more.
Sometimes exercise can feel like a bit of a chore, something you have to do for health reasons. But occasionally exercise can transform your life, whether it helps pull you out of an emotional pit, overcome stress, learn something about yourself, or help you appreciate your body.
Here are some stories from people who moved their bodies in new and sometimes challenging ways, and found out that it changed their life for the better.
1. This person who uses exercise to finally celebrate their body.
I’m transgender — female to male — and I spent 23 years haaaaaaaaaaating my body. Once I figured out I was a runner (another long journey), I started running marathons for fun! Now every race and recreational run is a celebration of the man I’ve become.
2. This person who used rock climbing to deal with anxiety.
I have had depression a couple of times and I also have general anxiety disorder. I found that longboarding around the city really improved my mood the last time I was going through a period of depression. Had I not forced myself to get outside and skate everywhere, I don’t think I would have gotten back to my normal self as quickly. I don’t skate much anymore, but I have picked up rock climbing the past three years and I consider it to be my version of meditation. All I can think about when I am climbing is climbing. It has been a miracle for my anxiety to be able to completely dump the worries in my head and just think about getting to the top.
3. These people who used exercise to help heal a broken heart.
When I was a junior in high school, my first serious boyfriend of two years broke up with me. I was devastated. I was just starting my track season and I decided that I should get a head start on other people and start running before practice started. When I felt like crying or screaming or anything, I would get up and go for a run. That year I beat my personal best by over a minute and I ran my first half marathon. Since then I ran another half marathon, a Tough Mudder, full marathon, and am currently training for a second marathon. Running just releases emotion for me.
A few years ago I went through a bad breakup with a guy I thought I was going to marry. I spent the first four months eating take-out and suffering from severe depression. It got so bad that at one point I felt unlovable and hated my body. My ex helped me with a lot of household duties that required heavy lifting, so when he left I felt even more weak. I wanted to join a gym for some time, but the thought of exercising in front of a man terrified me and left me quite vulnerable. One day on my walk home from work I saw Healthworks, an all women’s gym in Boston. I joined a week later and started learned about weight lifting and exercising to support my mental health. The best part was that I stopped feeling judged and felt proud of my body and what it could do. Two and a half years later I’m still a member and I feel better than ever. Not only did I gain strength, but I discovered a group of badass women who support me when I’m weak and when I’m strong.
4. This person who used weight training to feel more in control after a bipolar diagnosis.
I had just been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Although I was relieved to finally have a diagnosis after years of suffering, the more time I spent around doctors and medication it made me feel out of control of my life. I spiraled into an eating disorder, which gave me some type of control over something. It wasn’t until a doctor looked at me and told me to pick out my coffin because that’s where I was going to be in a few months if I didn’t get help. (It sounds harsh, but for me, it was a turning point in my life.) I decided to seek out a trainer and told him what was happening in my life. At the time, my energy was extremely depleted and I was frail. I could barely do any of the exercises but he continued to push me. Fast forward a few weeks later, and I continued to do a little better each time. I could lift a little more. I could push for one more rep.
I looked in the mirror and I realized I had control over building my body up. Instead of destroying myself, lifting weights helped me not only physically but mentally build myself back up in the healthiest way possible. Lifting weights truly saved my life.
5. This person who used exercise to help cope with panic attacks and decided to become a personal trainer.
I have pretty severe adjustment disorder. Two summers ago, my husband had to go do military training for six weeks, and I had never lived on my own before. I wasn’t sleeping, and I was having severe panic attacks nearly every day. We belonged to a gym, and I ran almost every day, but I never really worked out. So, I walked into the gym one day and signed up for a personal trainer. Being able to go into the gym and lift heavy things as well as control my own heart rate instead of it controlling me really got me through it. Now I work out regularly, got certified to become a trainer myself, and I’m going back to school to be a therapist to help other people like myself!
6. These people who used running to get a break from depression.
Running is the only thing that that keeps me together. It’s a one-hour break from my depression and anxiety, a time where I can just enjoy not thinking and being lost in my imagination. I can’t imagine how bad I would be without running.
I was going through a really bad depressive episode last year that I just couldn’t get out of and then out of sheer desperation I tried the 4 Weeks to 5K Challenge. I definitely didn’t make it to 5K, but running for a short bit every day helped me to get better. It not only helped with my depression, but also helped me sleep better and helped to get rid of back pain. To everyone I rolled my eyes at for suggesting exercise as a mental illness coping mechanism, I’m sorry! This shit works.
7. This person who cried the first time they were able to run for 20 minutes, and then never looked back.
After I weaned my first child, my hormones were way off balance for a long time. I was depressed and felt completely out of control of my body. I gained a lot of weight and spent way too much of my time crying and eating and sitting on the couch mentally unable to get up and do much of anything. I eventually found a program called Couch to 5K available from the NHS. It’s an app on your phone with voice recordings of guided walk/run interval training. You do it three times a week for nine weeks. The first week you only run for 60 seconds at a time, but I could hardly manage it. The running intervals slowly increase each week, and at the ninth week you run for 30 minutes. It is very positive and encouraging along the way, and the slow increases make it completely doable.
I remember stopping and crying tears of joy the first time I ran for twenty minutes straight, and I made it to thirty minutes slowly but surely. It was a great way to start exercising again after a long time of doing nothing. It was amazing to be guided in a way that let me succeed at something after feeling so depressed and down on myself.
8. This person who has lupus and found walking helped them appreciate their body.
I have lupus so just getting out of bed feels like exercise. That being said, anytime I’m actually able to go for a walk, even if it’s just around the block, I feel amazing after and it honestly feels like the biggest triumph. On those days, living with a chronic illness doesn’t seem so bad. Before lupus, I would work out for hours in the gym and never feel as accomplished as I do now after a simple walk. My point being: We could all stand to appreciate what our bodies are capable of, even however little it may be, because it’s all incredible.
9. This person who used running to deal with college stress and feel in more control.
In my senior year of college, I received several new diagnoses, both mental and physical, that required a lot of sudden lifestyle changes that I struggled to cope with. In addition, I was managing a large workload of classes and an internship. I was constantly anxious, frustrated, and couldn’t sleep or focus. When I started exercising, I found I felt “normal” again, and running was the only way I could get my brain to turn off, even just for an hour. And that made all the difference. Exercising gave me a moment to breathe, and afterwards, I always felt a little more in control and able to process the day with a clear head.
10. This woman who used CrossFit and martial arts to reduce her weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, and back pain.
I was tired of having no energy and my weight keeping me from enjoying so many things in life. I started martial arts and CrossFit this year, and I got a nutrition coach to help keep me accountable for healthy eating habits. I’ve lost OVER 60 POUNDS this year! My blood pressure is normal, I lowered my cholesterol, I never throw my back out anymore, I have so much more energy, and am much more productive in my everyday life because of that.
11. These people who found peace in a wilderness setting.
So I do this sport called orienteering which involves running around the woods and navigating from point to point. Not a very well-known sport (although I would argue that it should be), but the thing is that, no matter how bad a day, week or month I’ve been having, when I’m out in the woods moving my body I get to ignore the crazy stuff going on in my life and enjoy being out in nature. I could have been breaking down moments before but focusing on running and navigating (exercise for the brain, right?) helps me clear my mind. It’s made me recognize that, when I need a mental break, when I’m extremely anxious, when life is just so overwhelming that I want to curl up in a ball, that what I really should be doing is getting out into nature and run. And doing an organized sport or at least finding people that will go exercise with you sometimes is even better because then you get to be a part of a community. You can build amazing relationships (new and old) with people because you know that enjoy doing the same things as you and that can be a topic of conversation. Gotta avoid that stress and anxiety that comes with meeting new people.
Hiking helps me when I’m depressed because I get to go outside in the fresh air and sunlight. I also have two sleep disorders and it’s hard for me to do cardio, so yoga has really helped me keep up an exercise routine and practice mindfulness.
12. This person who found that running helped them cope with the loneliness of college.
Right before I started college last year, I went through a really hard breakup that left me devastated. It sounds silly, but I could hardly find motivation to keep going and could never get it off my mind. After I came to college, I was super sad and felt alone, and running completely changed my life. Anytime I was sad or needed a distraction I would go run, and focusing on my lifestyle kept me distracted. A year and a half later and I’m 60 pounds down and have ran three 5K races and a 10K! Not only is my body in much better health, but also my mind and my happiness. Without working out, I have no idea where I would be today mentally or physically.
13. This person who used walking to cope with post-concussion syndrome.
I have post-concussion syndrome, which basically means that I am still having symptoms and daily headaches from multiple concussions that happened four years ago. It got so bad that I was getting headaches every single day and migraines at least once a week. There were several times that I had to fight back tears in class (I’m currently a junior in college) because I couldn’t remember what my professors had said less than 10 seconds before.
I started daily exercise as part of an intervention program. It wasn’t anything too intense, just walking on a treadmill for 20 to 25 minutes a day at various inclines and speeds. Within a couple of weeks, my headaches were getting less and less frequent, and my memory was improving as well. At the end of the six-week intervention, my headaches went down from severe and every day to much more manageable about once a week. It also helped me manage my depression and anxiety better and made me feel more like an actual human being.
14. This person who started running to find a healthier coping mechanism.
In 2014/2015, I was getting out of a bad relationship, and my depression was at the worst it had been in a long time. I was on multiple antidepressants and still not feeling any better. Somehow, I had gained around 40 pounds because of my lack of motivation to do anything and my use of food as a coping mechanism. Even though I have always struggled with my body image, this period of my life was when I felt the absolute WORST about my body. I’m also transgender, so I have very complicated feelings toward my body. Slowly but surely, I walked my way into jogging, then jogged my way into running. It wasn’t always easy. I had to quit for a month straight due to the worst shin pain I’ve ever had in my life. But persistence has been my greatest tool
15. This person who found taekwondo was the one constant in a constantly shifting world.
Growing up as a TCK (third culture kid) I was constantly plagued with a sense of loss. I had no control over where we went, when we moved or how long we stayed, and the lack of autonomy over aspects of my life like school, friends, my room just threw me in a never-ending spiral of rage, frustration, sadness, and depression. Doing martial arts — taekwondo — helped me mentally and emotionally. I got to channel my rage and frustration into something productive and the sport always helped me clear my head. It was also one of my few constants — I made sure to keep up the sport wherever we moved and the sense of familiarity I got from easing back into the sport helped to ground and center me. Taekwondo saved me from going down a dark path. It kept me anchored and sane in a world where everything from friends to apartments were temporary and saying goodbye to everything and everyone you’ve become attached to was something that was expected of you at a moment’s notice.
16. This person who found their doggo’s need for love and exercise helped them deal with stress and unemployment.
I’ve been unemployed for two years (not by choice) and the stress of my family telling me I am a failure was driving me into a depression to where I didn’t even want to leave my bed. During this, I forgot to walk my little dog. One day he came up to me with a leash in his mouth and put it in front of me. How could I deny that? So I begrudgingly walked him and my other dog. And the fresh air and the way the trees swayed, just everything made me feel better. So now I remember to walk them every day.
17. This person who found that the gym helped her cope with grief.
My mom died from pancreatic cancer when I was 26. I didn’t really know how to grieve, but knew an undeniable way of releasing endorphins was to exercise. I’d always been fit, but my time at the gym became less about losing weight and more about giving myself a break from the constant grief I was feeling. When I exercise, I listen to super positive and upbeat music. I focus on the workout and pushing myself, and therefore am not thinking about my loss. I also found it helpful for the time it ate up of my day. Less time at home = less time sinking into a black hole of sadness. When speaking to my grief counselor, she also mentioned that the sweat our body releases during a workout is made up of the same makeup as our tears. So in it’s own way, exercising and sweating is giving me the relief of a big, soppy cry!
18. This person who hikes and lifts weights to help people better understand type 1 diabetes.
I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes 31 years ago, and at that time, diabetics were treated like fragile dolls. There was a huge list of things that I would never be able to do because it would throw off my blood sugars — I’d either die of hypoglycemia, or have my legs amputated and go blind from hyperglycemia. As time went on I started to give up on having a long life, and started trying out all of those things on the “can’t do” list. I found that I LOVE hiking and after I didn’t die on the Pacific Crest Trail, have taken on long trails all over the US and Canada. Being constantly active is AWESOME for my blood sugars, and because of that, I am able to keep up with my two healthy, hyper kids (another thing that was absolutely impossible 30 years ago).
Today I run, hike, and lift almost daily. A few times a year I volunteer at the hospital by my house, talking to young people who are newly diagnosed with diabetes. I show them pictures of where I’ve been and all of the “impossible” things I’ve done, so they know that diabetes isn’t a death sentence.
19. These people who found that exercise helped them recover from eating disorders.
Getting into long distance running (half marathons, marathons, 10Ks etc.) literally saved my life. I have battled an eating disorder for 10 years. When I was initially going through recovery, I had a span of time where I started to relapse pretty badly. It was at this point that a coworker of mine begged me to run the Nashville Rock n’ Roll half marathon with her because I liked to go for runs just for fun. At the time, the farthest I’d ever run was 6 miles but I signed up, thinking it would help my relapse if I was training that hard to run so far. Just by the way, that’s not how marathons work. I found out pretty quick that I actually had to feed myself because if I didn’t there was no way I’d be able to manage running 13 miles. Running helped me figure out what I am capable of. And it helped me figure out how I am supposed to take care of myself even with the basic act of feeding myself. I have been recovered from my eating disorder ever since, and have run three marathons, eight half marathons and countless other races with more coming up.
During the first couple years of college, I struggled with an eating disorder and being underweight. No matter the help I got, I just couldn’t seem to push through and get to a point where my weight was healthy. After my sophomore year, I started running, and that’s when things turned around. All of a sudden I felt energized and driven to be healthy. My appetite was up, my mental health was improving, and I began to enjoy food again. I gained about 15 healthy pounds, all while exercising in ways that made me happy, without overdoing it. I’ve even taken up weightlifting and my arms are the sexiest they’ve ever been. (Left pic is me at my worst, two on the right are happy and healthy.)
Community submissions have been edited for length and clarity.
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