By: Sarah Adams ’17, University Recreation & Wellness group fitness instructor
I set out with the idea that I wasn’t going to make this blog post too heavy- but it’s difficult to lighten this subject: 64% of students left college last year for a mental health related reason- this is a statistic we can’t ignore (National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2014).
Who are these students? Why is it that, if such a large portion of our population on campus is affected by mental illness, you may not be able to think of anyone in your life who falls into this category? Mental and emotional well-being, or lack thereof, is something that remains largely un-talked about. A complex stigma surrounding the topic keeps the knowledge of your classmate’s, teammate’s, roommate’s, or even your own experiences with mental health hush-hush.
So, in the interest of helping anyone who is currently struggling with a mental illness, I’m going to share my story and how group fitness saved my life.
As I progressed through my career as an undergrad, something I had never felt before coming to college was starting to build up. I was able to brush most of it under the rug to “protect” my busy schedule and GPA, but as many of us have experienced, that metaphorical rug will eventually just get ruined.
Cue fall semester: a loaded class schedule, two club sports, one executive position, and a new job as a group fitness instructor at RecWell. Somewhere between accepting that I was depressed and seeking help for it, my life collapsed in on itself. By the end of it all, I was severely disinterested in the sports I had previously loved, and dangerously close to being dismissed from my academic program.
The last thing left standing in the rubble, was group fitness.
Don’t get me wrong; I still had to drag myself out of hiding to go teach my cycle classes. But something happened to me for the hour I was there: maybe it was the bike, the music, the energy of my class participants- my depression couldn’t touch it.
After seeking professional help, this phenomenon started to make sense: mental and emotional illnesses can put our bodies into hibernation mode, and physical activity helps wake us back up. As little as a 30-minute low-intensity workout is all it takes to boost our brain chemistry for the better.
So, it makes sense that we should be physically active to combat poor mental or emotional health, but why group fitness?
- You have people to hold you accountable for showing up. Next time you’re taking a class, chat with your “neighbors” while waiting in line beforehand, introduce yourself to the person you set up next to, and get to know your instructors! Make it a point to show up to see them, or even better, make it a date with a friend! On days you really don’t want to go, you’ll have the drive to get yourself to the studio.
- You don’t have to be an exercise guru. It’s perfectly acceptable (and even encouraged) to go try out a class that you have no experience with (trust me, I do this with pretty much every class with the exception of my own). As instructors, we put a lot of thought into making the class welcoming and fun for beginners, as well as returning participants.
- Sometimes, simply spending time as a part of a group helps us cope. If no one said anything during a group therapy session, but everyone left feeling a little better, we would call it group fitness.
For me, teaching and participating in group fitness reminds me that no matter where I stand with my mental and emotional health, I am still a strong and very capable person.
I encourage you to add physical activity to your mental and emotional self-care regimen and to never be afraid to reach out for help when you need it. There are some great free resources available to you as a UMD student right on campus, including the Counseling Center and Mental Health Services at the University Health Center.