Sharing my Fitness Journey. By Jen C.

Me and my mom at Starved Rock State Park. We go every year, along with my two sisters, to honor Daniel, who passed away. Our family loves hiking!

Hello everyone! My name is Jen Connelly. Many may not know this, but I write and create content for Fit St. Charles’ Facebook and Instagram, and I help out with this blog. I LOVE writing about exercise and its benefits for mental health (among other things!). After about a year of doing so, I think it’s finally time for me to share my own complicated journey with exercise and mental health (plus May is Mental Health Awareness month!). It may be scary to put yourself out there, but reading about other people’s fitness journeys has always inspired me, so here we go!

Exercise used to be something I dreaded. Throughout my teenage and early adult life, I made many attempts to be consistent about working out. I have belonged to several different gyms, attempted to run, tried to lose weight by significantly reducing my food intake (which I did NOT do in the right way or sustainably), and at the end of the day, I always quit. All I ever wanted in my twenties was a “perfect body.” That’s why I wanted to exercise. That is why I wanted to diet. That was the only reason. I never saw the results as quickly as I wanted, so I would quit. Sometimes, I would quit after a few weeks, sometimes a few months, and sometimes, I would go to the gym once and just not return for years. I wasn’t significantly overweight then, but I wasn’t perfect either, and that was something I could live with. 

Almost five years ago, I was considered obese, had developed high blood pressure, and was pre-diabetic. I didn’t know how I got there, but apparently, my lifestyle caught up with me. I felt hopeless and knew I didn’t get that way overnight. It took years. After losing my brother, I went into a downward spiral. For a few years, I ate to smother my feelings, I drank more than I should have, and I didn’t care about my physical or mental health. There was a time in which I did not care about myself at all. Then, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and it felt like a death sentence. However, I began medication for bipolar and realized that this diagnosis was the reason that I could receive the appropriate treatment. The series of events that led me there wasn’t ideal, but I finally realized what was “wrong” with me, and receiving a diagnosis changed from something that angered me to something that empowered me. 

Once I began to get my mental health under control and could think into the future, I realized what state I was in physically. The blood pressure, being pre-diabetic, and never feeling comfortable in my own body. When I say I wasn’t comfortable, I don’t just mean I wasn’t confident- I physically hurt. I had knee and ankle problems, and everything was harder than it should have been. I was 29 years old. I didn’t want to think about what I would feel like in my 70s, much less how I would feel a year from then if I didn’t do something about it. I disclosed to my mom, who you all know, Jan Held, that I was ready to change. I needed motivation to exercise other than losing weight. That had never worked for me in the past, and I knew that if that were my only goal, it wouldn’t work for me now. I decided that this time, I would focus on something else.

Being bipolar, even medicated, isn’t always easy. Even with medication, depression can set in randomly and without warning. Anxiety sometimes rears its ugly head. I had watched from the sidelines for years as my mom succeeded at slowly regaining freedom, a healthy mentality, and better coping methods through exercise, especially running. She started weightlifting and focusing on strength and power. I watched that from the sidelines, too. After my brother died, I knew that exercise was part of what helped her cope with her grief, but I had not considered it “my cup of tea.” However, armed with the correct diagnosis and the support structure of friends and family, I finally considered the mental benefits of exercise. That was my new reason to work out. Yes, I needed to lose weight and all of the physical benefits that come with it. However, I decided that I would not focus on how exercise made me feel. I focused on the short-term benefits. You know, the endorphins that get released while you work out that reduce anxiety and depression, helped me control mood swings, and increased my confidence in my body’s ability. And you know what? It changed my life. 

I started at home. I was too embarrassed to go to the gym, and I didn’t want to waste money on something I wasn’t going to use (since I had failed to go so many times before). I asked my mom for advice. She sent me workouts, would FaceTime me to make sure that I was doing things correctly, and gifted me a medicine ball, a kettlebell, and some resistance bands. That’s all I used for months, and it was all I needed, at least for a little while. For my 30th birthday, my gym equipment collection grew a little, and I now had a heavier kettlebell and some dumbbells. I did TABATA, HIIT, and strength training in my living room. And I felt amazing. I felt stronger and healthier, and most importantly, I didn’t have to increase my medication. All of my symptoms that were not being controlled on my current dose were starting to subside. It was amazing. I knew that it was the exercise that was creating this effect because if I skipped a week, I would start to feel worse again. Suddenly, I became more positive, confident, and emotionally stable. I couldn’t believe it, and I didn’t want it to stop. When the pandemic started, I was lucky enough that I had a “home gym” to continue working out, but I started to want more.

I wanted to be stronger. When I visited St. Charles, my mom ran me through some workouts that required gym equipment, and I enjoyed them (trust me, if I lived in St. Charles, you would always see me at Fit St. Charles). I loved it. Lifting weights was dynamic and empowering and increased my mind-body connection like I had never experienced. When I worked out there, it was just me and my mom. There was no one there to look at me and judge my appearance. Every time I went back home to Champaign, I would resent my lack of confidence about working out in public. I thought to myself, it’s time to get over my fear of the gym. I don’t judge others, so why would they judge me? Why is my tendency to be self-conscious keeping me from reaching my goals? So, I joined a local gym. 

Now, at the age of 34, I am the strongest I have ever been. Building strength and confidence in my body’s abilities helped give me the confidence to change jobs, focus on emotional growth, and ultimately start grad school for clinical mental health counseling. I’m no longer at risk of being diabetic, my blood pressure is normal, my mental health is almost completely under control (with the help of therapy, which I recommend for anyone who has struggles, and medication), my knee and ankle pain are gone, my diet has vastly improved, and I have lost about 45 pounds. My journey has not been without its own complications- I’ve sustained injuries running that I’ve needed physical therapy for, lifestyle changes have forced me to change when and where I exercise, and there are days that I struggle with motivation just to provide a few examples. When I struggle with motivation, I remember that exercise probably saved my life, and I cannot imagine the mental and physical state I would be in if I had not started my fitness journey. I’m not perfect by any means, either. I have days I skip the gym, but the difference now vs. five years ago is that there is not a predetermining factor in whether I go the next day or the day after. It’s a habit now, and it’s one that I will continue, to the best of my body’s ability, for the rest of my life! 

Credit where credit is due- I know I am lucky that my mom is a personal trainer. I am lucky to have someone in my corner who supports me through my ups and downs. There is so much value in having a support system, and many people support me unconditionally. I’m also lucky to have my knowledge base about exercise, mental health, and nutrition. Although I would never claim to be an expert in any of it, I have learned so much from both my mom and the process of writing for Fit St. Charles’ blog. The knowledge is out there if you want to find it! The internet can be an amazing tool. I won’t allow myself to chalk it up to luck, though. Ultimately, I am the one who remained consistent, the one who pushed myself every time I walked into the gym, the one who changed my eating habits, and the one who sought out and utilized information. It’s empowering! 

You can be the one to do this for yourself, too. Trust me, if I can do it, you can! I urge you to find your own motivation, community, and someone to help guide you through the process of change and progress. Not everyone has a support system “built-in” to their life like I did, but I promise there is one out there for you! The gym environment can initially seem daunting, but most people want to help and know the value of community. This is especially true with smaller gyms and gyms that provide group classes and sessions. Everyone there has the same end goal as you do- to improve. Most of them have probably struggled in similar ways and understand what you are going through! If you can’t join a gym, plenty of online communities will also lift you up and help inspire you, so you just have to look! 

I hope that if you haven’t started your fitness journey or are struggling with motivation, you find your inspiration today. It’s different for everyone, but whatever it may be, once you make it a habit, I think it’s harder to stop than it was to start. Most of all, I hope that you realize that you have value and that an investment in yourself is an investment in all the people who love you and care for you!