The gym can be an integral part of your of physical AND mental fitness regimen
I remember how nervous I was before I walked into the gym for the first time. Here I was, a 5-foot, 4-inch gay male who had no idea what I was doing. Were they going to laugh at me? Were they going to call me names? Were my shorts too short? Should I have worn my rainbow bracelet or Pride shirt?
Gym intimidation was in full effect — not because I was scared to work out, but more because I was about to walk into a space filled with hypermasculinity.
For years I looked for ways to combat the anxiety that I had dealt with since I was a kid. And I had found many ways to do that. But the ways I found weren’t healthy; they were destructive.
I drowned my anxiety, trauma and insecurities with substances and self-mutilation. I journaled, and I went to therapy. But I needed something more, and, unfortunately, those negative coping mechanisms gave me the relief I was seeking, if only temporarily.
I never thought in a million years I’d become one of those who used the gym as a way to heal.
At first my fitness goals were, like most people’s, superficial: get a nice body so I could look hot and attract men. I was going to the gym to please the eyes of others. I wanted to be wanted; I wanted to feel confident. So I went to the gym.
For a few weeks, I would work out regularly and watch what I ate.
But then, I would start to slack off, and I would fall back into old habits again.
I continued to admire the men saw who were in amazing shape. I admired their discipline, focus and determination. I saw them when I walked into the gym; I saw how they would be “in the zone,” focused on nothing else but their fitness goals. I would admire them from afar on the elliptical, repeating Elle Wood’s words from Legally Blonde: “Exercise gives you endorphins; endorphins make you happy.”
Then I would take my ass to Whataburger afterwards and get my Number 5 — with a Diet Dr Pepper for balance, of course.
A few years ago I decided to get more serious about my fitness journey, but this time I was seeking something different. I wasn’t going for others’ eyes; I was going because I didn’t want to continue using negative coping mechanisms to deal with the bullshit from my past. I was tired of making excuses and allowing my anxiety and trauma to defeat me.
So I walked into the gym again, put my AirPods in and drowned everything else out. I did my best to keep my focus and not get distracted by the Adonis-like physiques around me. And each day I went, I began to feel more relief from the imposter syndrome I sometimes struggled with.
It’s no secret that exercise is often used to cope with anxiety and depression. I see so many Instagram and TikTok pages dedicated to the art of fitness that, instead of talking about the physical benefits, focus on the ways it can improve mental health. This makes me happy — not just because it promotes healthy coping mechanisms but also because it shines a light on how important it is to take care of our mental health.
As time went on, the more I went to the gym with my new focus, the more I noticed a change in my mindset. I began to gain confidence in myself as the REAL me. I was sleeping better, and my anxiety was beginning to lessen.
The gym became part of my routine, and it became a safe space for me, a place where everyone was there to better themselves and where, quite possibly, there were others battling their own demons, their own insecurities and their own mental struggles, just like I was.
My journey at the gym has had its ups and downs. I’m not the most “fit” person by society’s standards, and I still have my moments of weakness where I fall behind on my gym schedule. But it has become a staple in my self-care routine along with meditation, rest and surrounding myself with the right people.
I remember the times I sat in the gym parking lot, wiping tears away after having an anxiety attack, wanting to just drive away and give up on everything. Instead I walked in, changed into my favorite gym outfit, drank my pre-workout and put in my headphones. I looked in the mirror with each rep and told myself I wouldn’t be defeated. I wouldn’t allow anxiety or trauma to break me down or the voices in my head to ever tell me I wasn’t good enough.
I left all the wreckage of my past on the floor of the gym and walked out feeling accomplished. I felt like I had regained my inner strength.
Like most people, I would like a little improvement here and there with my body, sure. But the reason I go to the gym isn’t because I’m not happy with my body. I go because it’s my safe space. It’s a place that I have seen myself grow from a shy and scared boy to a confident and improved man. It’s a place where no matter your race, background, gender or sexual orientation, you can be among others who are all working on something positive.
It’s a place where there should truly be no judgement and where everyone should feel welcome.
Mathew Dominguez is the content marketing specialist and administrative assistant for Dallas Voice. Reach him at email@example.com.