Chapter Three: Exercise & Mental Health in the Big Picture

I have had a complicated relationship with exercise since I was a child. I began swimming when I was six years old at the behest of my mother. I am not a competitive person, and being forced to competitively swim through elementary, middle, and high school wore significantly on my mental health, past even the point of depression. My mother had no sympathy for me when I explained to her how horrible competitive swimming made me feel, and accused me of “laziness” among other things. I quit the day I turned 18 and now, at age 23, I still have not stepped in a pool since.

Seeing Simone Biles’ journey during the Tokyo 2021 Olympics has been incredibly validating because she respects the seriousness of mental health and recognizes how difficult it is to maintain as a serious athlete. Simone withdrew from part of it because of the physical danger her mental health posed toward her ability to complete her routine without becoming injured. When the (potential) injury is physical, it is often easier for others (not speaking for Piers Morgan) to understand the implications of poor mental health. When there are simply ambiguous ideas of depression or anxiety, one’s mother or coach can thoughtlessly reply: “Stop being so negative.” This gaslighting is incredibly infuriating, but mostly hurtful. 

These days, I crave a routine, when I used to detest it. The book Nausea by John Paul Sartre gave me the words to describe how I had previously felt in a creative writing piece: “I felt disgust and disappointment toward myself and toward everyone. Why can’t everyone just do what they want? Why must we play roles and condemn ourselves to routine? I need routine; my need for the right way to live is despicable.” 

My well-used and cherished copy of Nausea.

But now I’m not so weirdy resentful: routine helps me feel more in control of my daily life rather than suffocated by it. In your daily life, as long as you feel, and you are affected by the consequences of your own and others’ actions, everything you do matters. I love that notion because, while it used to make me anxious (since how I exercised was dictated by others), it now bolsters my individual agency. I am not telling you what I think you should do to make your body feel better or stronger or more yours. There is no “secret” to total self-acceptance. All I know is that only you know how you feel; even your therapist does not live in your mind. Neither do your parents, coaches, or teachers. Although ideally these figures should want to help you, sometimes they can’t because they don’t think the same way, and their lives have been informed by different circumstances. 

It’s okay to take your time and experiment with a routine. Mine still changes year to year. With COVID-19, it has been a particularly difficult year of coping, especially after my routine was entirely upended from one day to the next. I had been going to the gym for three days a week consistently over the prior year. I felt confident in my strength and endurance, and I was proud of myself. 

They usually draw a funny comic on the whiteboard at 404 (to get your workout started with a smile?): “Hey, dude, when I said ‘curls might help’ that’s not what I meant.”

Without a gym, I have no desire to exercise. During my year in isolation I lost all of the aforementioned progress and now have to start over. It’s okay, though: day by day. 

If you’re like me, and prefer to work out independently without instruction, colleges usually have a free gym you can attend as a student. My go-to gym at NYU is 404 Fitness, near which you can also find a Rumble boxing studio, and SoulCycle. If you want to be part of a club team in college, you can join intramural sports. If you want to do something more competitive you can look for sports within college divisions. If you don’t feel quite ready to take a class or go to the gym, or you just need a break from building your intensity, taking walks offers a more casual, but effective form of movement. 

 It’s okay to not “seamlessly” transition your lifestyle into going to the gym three times a week instead of none, or toward becoming a vegetarian, for example. Sometimes you will step outside of those goals simply because the world is not currently allowing for it, or you want to do something more, or maybe the transition doesn’t feel good anymore, which is okay. When you cannot control things, that is when it’s fun to simply be along for the ride (a passenger, as I like to say). In the big picture, your mental health should have a mutualistically symbiotic relationship with when and how you exercise. 

A brief summary of advice:

  • During college, take advantage of free gym memberships/ collegiate club sports
  • I am not telling you what I think you should do to make your body feel better or stronger or more yours. There is no “secret” to total self-acceptance; it occurs on a rolling basis throughout your life. 
    • Being a “passenger” is my way of describing my most reliable mode of self-preservation; you are not at fault for what you can’t control
  • Check out Jameela Jamil’s social media (Twitter/Instagram) and her podcast “iWeigh” through both of which she deeply and personally discusses a multitude of topics with individuals with personal experiences/experts regarding mental health, eating disorders, working out, feminism, etc. 
    • This has grown to largely inform a lot of my mindset regarding the language I use to discuss exercise, physicality, and nutrition

By: Anna Matefy

Anna Matefy recently graduated from NYU with a Bachelor’s in Media, Culture, and Communication. She has been working in politics for the past few years, and wants to transition into a career in media entertainment/comedy. She will be attending NYU as a graduate student in Media beginning in 2021.

For over 20 years, the Campus Clipper has been offering awesome student discounts in NYC,  from the East Side to Greenwich Village. Along with inspiration, the company offers students a special coupon booklet and the Official Student Guide, which encourages them to discover new places in the city and save money on food, clothing, and services.  At the Campus Clipper, not only do we help our interns learn new skills, make money, and create wonderful e-books, we give them a platform to teach others. Check our website for more student savings and watch our YouTube video showing off some of New York City’s finest students during the Welcome Week of 2015.


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