When things got bad, everyone told me to exercise.
“It always helps me to take a workout class — just to sweat a little,” my well-meaning friend said as she stroked my unwashed hair. “Just try it.”
“Come to the gym with me!” My co-worker begged. “We both need the endorphins.”
“How have you moved your body today?” I read on a wellness influencer’s Instagram stories.
My family was more direct. “It’s because you don’t exercise,” they would tell me when I confessed how bad my anxiety and depression had become; how getting out of bed was exhausting, how panic attacks occupied all my waking hours, how everything just hurt. How my only relief was the cocoon of blankets that protected me from having to live my life.
Research backed them up. Numerous studies have found that physical exercise is meaningfully and significantly associated with self-reported mental health improvement. But my loved ones’ urging and even the peer-reviewed academic journals didn’t seem to account for the crushing weight of depression that kept me confined to my bedroom. Nothing addressed that exercise seemed like a painful chore when everyone around you was forcing it and expecting you to just get happy.
Two years later, my mental health has improved — thanks to a lucky combination of effective medication, regular therapy, a career change and, notably, a newfound healthy relationship with exercise. But new habits did not emerge overnight. They came with gradual changes made on my own terms.
My Outlook Changed During the Pandemic
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, I found myself packing up my New York City apartment to move back home with my parents in Washington, D.C. After spending every hour of the day inside with my parents and the flood of Slack notifications and emails, the outdoors suddenly had a new appeal.
No one mentioned exercise to me; perhaps they were too busy worrying about a global pandemic and scanning the headlines for more catastrophic news. With no one nudging me — demanding I “fix” myself — I actually wanted to move my body. I even caught myself eying my running shoes in the back of my closet. Somewhere, deep down, I wanted to feel the D.C. humidity on the back of my neck. I craved the burn in my thighs from walking up a steep hill. I wanted to try shedding my cocoon of blankets just to see what it felt like.
Naturally, my enthusiasm for walking lasted only a few minutes into my first attempt. After one uphill block, I was winded. My persistent, negative internal dialogue told me I was too out-of-shape, too depressed, too lazy, too unwilling to make a lifestyle change — that I should just give up and go home. I resolved to walk for 30 minutes, just to finish out the optimistic Spotify playlist I had designated for exercise.
The next two weeks of walking weren’t much different. I forced myself into running shoes, blasted energetic music through my headphones and dragged myself around my neighborhood, block by block. My internal critic mocked my efforts and assured me that my mental and physical health wouldn’t improve. But I managed to drown her out with enough base drum.
On my 20th day of walking, I noticed that my first hill hadn’t left me winded. I had barely noticed it go by. In that moment, I wasn’t overwhelmed with cruel self-talk. I felt something almost like pride.
I Began to Enjoy Exercise for Myself
Despite the occasional interjections from my internal bully, I started to have fun on my daily walks. I walked faster and longer. I began jogging every other block. My exercise playlists became more whimsical, as I no longer had to rely on a crushing downbeat to motivate myself.
Once moving my body no longer felt like a chore, I found myself wondering about what else I could do. I tried online workout classes and discovered I actually liked them. They gave me structure and purpose during a confusing time that felt otherwise out of my control.
Now, Walking is My Self-Care
In the past year, I have walked an average of 5.7 miles every day. This is a number that would have intimidated me just a year earlier. But I have truly reached a place where moving my body feels safe and fulfilling. Walking has even become a reason to get out of bed on the tougher days.
When I need to re-center myself or disconnect from my computer screen, I walk. When I need to work through a spiral of anxious thoughts and negative internalized messages, I walk.
I walk without a desire to satisfy anyone else.
Walking around the block didn’t cure my depression, but trusting myself to try new habits and make changes on my own terms has been nothing short of a blessing.
Margot Harris is the Associate Editor of Marketing and Communications at NAMI. She has an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University and previously worked as a digital culture reporter at Business Insider. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her very energetic emotional support dog, Lyla.