‘Lifting Weights Helped Pull Me Out Of The Darkest Period Of My Life’

My depression started in middle school. I didn’t like myself. I thought I wasn’t attractive enough, and I suffered from terrible lows.

In college, I started feeling this self-hatred even more—which is when I also developed bulimia.

Growing up, I ran track, and played volleyball and basketball. But in college, I started working out obsessively. I viewed it as a punishment, a way to control my weight and move closer to an aesthetic goal. I would binge on food and then go work out for hours. Soon, I was purging too.

In my mid-twenties, I was able to pull myself out of this cycle of binging and purging, though it took all my strength and a lot of time—about a year and a half to fully break free. But even after I’d moved past most of my eating disorder, the depression lingered.

I wasn’t just feeling low either—I spent the next year constantly swinging between severe depression and extreme highs. For periods of time, I would feel invincible. I would go long stretches without sleeping, and feel very productive. But then I’d crash to such a low. I became irritable and mean to my friends. I would lie on my best friend’s couch and just sleep.

In early 2016, when I was 28, I got to a point where I didn’t want anyone to be around me. I thought about what it would be like if I didn’t exist. I hit an all-time low and was no longer functioning.

I finally went to the doctor: She diagnosed me with bipolar II disorder, and prescribed medication, which I started taking. It worked, but it left me feeling nothing. It’s like I wasn’t actually myself; I felt void. Eventually, I stopped taking it.

Around this time, I started going to physical therapy for an old knee injury. As the basis of PT, they showed me how to use exercise to get stronger, and I noticed that this progress was making me feel better mentally, too.

I knew I didn’t want to depend on medicine, but I also knew I couldn’t go back to those ups and downs. I prayed about it, and talked to friends. I also consulted with my doctor, who was very supportive, especially since I wasn’t experiencing mania in a way that endangered my life.

Ultimately, I decided medication wasn’t the right choice for me, so I decided to try to use fitness and self-care to manage my moods instead.

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Just acknowledging my depression was the first step—and a huge help. Even though it sounds so basic, it was really this mindset shift and commitment to start caring for my mental health that changed everything.

In 2016, I started lifting weights more seriously than I ever had before. I’ve always been huge into research, and I channeled that energy into learning better ways to train and develop strength. I read everything from textbooks to fitness blogs, and developed a routine of training for hypertrophy, strength, endurance, balance, and cardio.

After the first month following my new, healthy workout routine, I had more energy. My mood improved drastically, but I was nervous that I was just entering a manic state. I had to learn the difference between feeling good and feeling manic, which is where self-care came in.

I wrote in my journal. I had mental check-ins and gave myself permission to feel my emotions. I took walks and did things that I found just plain fun, like dancing.

I was learning about myself and getting strong at the same time. The fact that I was able to lift heavy weights boosted my confidence. It felt like a win—which I needed in my life.

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My workouts really took off when I discovered Bret Contreras, The Glute Guy. I learned in physical therapy that strengthening your glute muscles is key to relieving pain in other areas, and Bret’s approach to fitness really embraced that. I started following the workouts in Strong Curves, which helped me not only get stronger but manage my lingering knee pain.

I was so surprised by how quickly I was able to gain strength. After a month of deadlifting regularly, I hit my goal of 175 pounds—that moment really surprised and impressed me. It made me realize I was capable of a lot more than I thought. I began to push further, reaching my max at 275. Then, I started maxing out glute bridges at 325 pounds.

These days, I generally do leg/glute focused workouts three days a week, arms and back one day. I make a point to vary my movement patterns every workout.

In addition, one to two days a week, I dance. Dancing has always been a part of my life. When I was younger I danced in church and took classes here and there. But lately, it’s about the freedom, that mind/body connection, and confidence. It is truly a wonderful feeling.

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Since I have a history of bulimia, I don’t follow a strict diet. It isn’t healthy for me. Instead, I eat intuitively. I eat mostly plant-based throughout the day, sticking primarily to chicken and fish for protein. One thing I’ll never stop eating: a burger and fries, my favorite meal.

Confidence is not something you can fake. You may fool yourself and others for some time – I know I did it – but eventually you won’t be able to anymore. When I was deep in a depressive state, my friend @allisonamyharris would convince me to come over to her house. I didn’t want to because I was rejecting interaction. I was rude and volatile or I would just go to sleep on her couch. I wasn’t me. Others would look at me on the outside and my Instagram account and believe I had it together. I was too tired to fake the confidence anymore. I had to make a decision to discover me and build some real confidence. I thank God that this smile is now real. I can crack myself up when I’m taking pictures because I experience true joy. You can too. Fitness is a huge part of gaining my confidence. Click to read my blog post “How To Develop A Fitness Mindset And Improve Your Focus” #mayellie #ellieactivewear #loveellie

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After six months, I found that I was no longer feeling depressed, I was sleeping through the night, and I wasn’t experiencing excessive highs.

I would feel that boost of endorphins leaving the gym, but it was more than that. My outlook on life was changing.

I had spent the majority of my twenties hating myself, feeling unattractive, and trying to figure out how to look better.

Now, at age 30, two years into my self-care and exercise plan, my life is about acknowledging my feelings and allowing them to exist without taking over.

My biggest surprise is how much exercise has opened my mind and trickled into other aspects of my life. When I started lifting heavy, I realized I was capable of many other things.

I have never been so in control of my emotions. I have my bad days, of course, but I cannot stress enough how different I feel. My life is totally changed forever.

Your imperfections are what make you beautiful. ❤️

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Always be aware of yourself, and be aware of your emotions. Listen to your body, and to your mind.

Of course, everyone is different, and may be better off with a different course of treatment. While I checked in with my doctor regularly after my diagnosis, I never sought additional therapy for my bipolar II. This may not be the right choice for others with the disorder.

Everyone has a different path, but just acknowledging how you feel, and allowing yourself to feel it can go a long way.

Follow Tiffany’s fitness journey @tiffanyima.

NOTE: If you’re experiencing depression, be sure to talk to your doctor before making any changes in your current treatment.

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