Five months ago I decided I wanted to be in the best shape of my life. I had just celebrated my 32nd birthday and despite the fact that I have always been skinny, I’ve never really been fit. Nor have I tried to be. That’s because I spent most of my twenties devoted to being healthy and I never really cared to be physically “fit.” Instead, I used exercise to heal from depression, develop mental strength, heal hormonal imbalances, and improve the overall quality of my life. Here’s how:

I did yoga to get over depression

The very first time I did anything that could be considered exercise, was when I was fifteen years old and went to yoga with my mom at her gym. I went because I wanted to feel like an adult and do something with my mom, but I stayed because yoga became a coping mechanism that I will forever be grateful for, but in all honesty, will probably never do again.

That’s because, for me, yoga was all about healing. From the time I was fifteen years old until the time I was twenty years old, I had a pretty violent stalker. I don’t want to go into the whole ordeal of it now, but suffice it to say that it all ended with an attempt on my life and a pretty severe case of PTSD. Because I was already going to yoga with my mom at the time, I quickly recognized the healing benefits yoga had on my depression and despite court-ordered therapy, it became my most healing respite.

After the trial, my stalker was sentenced to fifty years in prison for my attempted murder (thank heaven), and my family moved from Colorado to Texas to heal. I transferred to Texas Christian University, found a counselor I actually liked at the student health center, enrolled myself in thrice weekly yoga classes at the local studio, and allowed myself the freedom to watch as many episodes of Friends as often as my heart desired. It was my own personal prescription for happiness and I warmly wrapped myself up in it.

After a couple years of this, my depression lifted enough that I was able to do more than survive, I was able to thrive. I studied abroad in Paris, graduated school with a degree in Fashion Merchandising and French, got a job as an assistant buyer for American Eagle Outfitters, and moved into a beautiful apartment with my (now) husband in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Yoga, like God, was with me through all of it. On my mat, the three of us worked together like a holy trinity of my own personal happiness. And I needed every ounce of it.

By the time we moved to Pittsburgh, I had come a long way. My yoga practice had helped me get out of depression and I no longer in need of the calming Yin, Hatha, and Vinyasa yoga classes I had relied upon until then. Now I needed something more challenging. Now I needed an exercise that would make me feel strong. So I enrolled in my first power yoga class and signed-up to become certified as a teacher.

Power yoga gave me the strength to take on new challenges in life. There was a time, years prior when I had been unable to attend a party or even hold down a job at a coffee shop due to the crushing weight of depression or the frequency of panic attacks. Now, I had good friends and a good job, and I was ready to level-up my life in a big way. Power yoga supported me in that. The next year, my husband and I moved to California, I got a job as a buyer for Williams-Sonoma, and we rented out the prettiest cottage you ever did see in Marin County, California.

I did CrossFit to become mentally strong

It was in California that I started volunteering with Young Life, a Christian organization that had helped me as a high school student struggling with all that stalker stuff, and helped me again as an adult who had overcome all of that. At summer camp that year I got up and told my story to more than 500 high school students. About the five years my life had been in danger, about the healing journey I had undertaken after it wasn’t, and how I had become stronger and more resilient as a result.

I realized then, as I was speaking, that my healing journey was over. I wasn’t depressed anymore and I didn’t have panic attacks anymore. I didn’t need a counselor anymore and I didn’t need yoga anymore. Realizing that I didn’t need to “heal” anymore was a big achievement for me, but it was also an adjustment at first. For so long my goal had been to heal myself and I had seen therapists, gone to ayurvedic practitioners, eaten serotonin boosting diets, taken homeopathic tinctures, and attended wellness retreats, all in the name of achieving that goal. But once my healing had effectively ended, I had no need for any of that.

One day in yoga class I became so bored that I just got up and left in the middle of class. From then on, emotional healing took a back seat as my mental strength became more important. Yoga had helped me to remove what was weak from my life (namely depression, anxiety, and panic attacks), but now I was ready for an exercise that would make me feel strong. My husband and I signed up for CrossFit and I spent two years completely immersed in that world. At the time it gave me a steady dose of warrior mentality that I had never before experienced in my life. I felt strong, capable, and able to achieve anything I set my mind to.

Thanks to CrossFit, I felt powerful, and that translated into almost every other area of my life. During that time, I was promoted to Head of Marketing at a prominent tech start-up in San Francisco, my husband and I decided to get married and eloped to City Hall, and we bought our first home, a tree house perched above the Marin Hills in beautiful Fairfax, California. On our wedding day, I was probably the most fit I have ever been and I enjoyed feeling the strength of my body as I swam through the ocean on our honeymoon in Aruba. But though crossfit had helped me to become strong emotionally and strong physically, I was not healthy, and that quickly became the next item on my agenda.

I did ballet to heal my hormonal imbalances

Shortly after our honeymoon, digestive problems I had been facing for years finally demanded my attention. Up until that point, I had been dealing with severe stomach pain and constipation and had tried everything in my power to ease it. Nothing had worked and I was left curled up in my bed with what felt like appendicitis every single day. In desperation, I flew up to the IBS Treatment Center in Seattle where they tested me for every possible digestive ailment. A few weeks later I found out that I had severe food sensitivities to gluten, dairy, eggs, and beans.

Simultaneously, I had been exploring the idea of getting off birth control pills after reading that those excess hormones just might not be that great for my body. When I discovered that all birth control pills contain trace amounts of dairy, that was the final straw. I had been taking that steady hormonal drip for seven years unaware that they had been poisoning me in more ways than one. So, even though my husband and I do not plan to have children, I got off the pill and started using the Fertility Awareness Method instead.

That’s when I discovered all the hormonal imbalances. When I got off the pill, my period never came back. I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, polycystic ovarian syndrome, and amenorrhea, and was told by my doctor to get back on the pill to regulate my cycle. But I knew better than to sweep my symptoms under a rug and decided to heal my hormonal imbalances holistically instead.

Amenorrhea (not having periods) was the root cause of all my other ailments, and so I decided to heal that one first. Though there are many ways to go about healing from amenorrhea, there is one method that is universally agreed upon by almost every physician and alternative physician: you have to stop exercising. Though amenorrhea is traditionally associated with athletes—those known to workout to the point of excess—even running a couple of miles a week can be enough to trigger it.

So I stopped exercising. I stopped doing CrossFit, I stopped teaching power yoga, and I stopped running the occasional mile or two. For two years, I didn’t exercise at all apart from long walks and ballet classes—and I loved every minute of it. Ballet brought me the grace and peace that had missing in my life. It brought me slowness, and ease, and it tempered the intense drive that had gotten me so far in life.

Now that I was no longer working out, I had more time to focus on the simple pleasures in life. I wanted to see my husband more, to spend more time cooking, and to learn how to play an instrument. I started devoting my time to learning languages and reading books. I got my health coach certification and applied to graduate school. I became more involved with writing my blog and even started my own business.

My periods started returning once every six months, then every three months, then every 45 days, and finally every 28 days. By the end of this time, I had healed so much more than my body, I had healed my life. I felt full and happy and it was out of this place that my husband and I decided to move to Salt Lake City. We wanted to spend more time together and we wanted to spend more time with friends so we made the move to a new state.

Now I do ballet for the long haul

When we first moved to Salt Lake City I was thirty years old and had just spent the better part of three months recovering from a foot fracture. The lack of movement was finally starting to get to me and I knew I needed to start moving my body again, but I didn’t know what to do. Or why.

Up until this point, exercise had been done with a purpose: to heal. But something about being in my early thirties prompted me to rethink my fitness strategy. To wonder what it would be like to focus for once purely on physical fitness. On being in the best shape of my life—and looking like it. If Jennifer Aniston could look that good at 47, I reasoned, why couldn’t I do the same in my early thirties?

I tried a few things at first. Tennis classes were too expensive to maintain and the spin classes in Salt Lake City left something to be desired. I tried to get back into yoga or CrossFit but just didn’t enjoy it anymore. I went to a few pilates classes, barre classes, and TRX classes, but I really hated going. Then on my 32nd birthday, I sat down to think about my goals. I wanted to feel good and I wanted to look good, but I didn’t want to spend all my time at the gym.

Like the French, I much preferred to live a life of leisure than to spend all of my time putting on gym clothes, driving to class, taking class, driving home, and then showering. Though I had lived that life before, my period of “not working out” had taught me that that just wasn’t what life was all about. Given the choice, a glass of rosé with a friend was worth so much more to me than a night at pilates by myself.

That being said, I know that maintaining muscle mass becomes increasingly important over the age of 30 (see bone fracture on my thirtieth birthday), and weight-bearing exercise and resistance training are the only surefire ways to combat the calcium and mineral deprivation that cause bone loss (and things like hip fractures and osteoporosis) as we age. Low-intensity steady state (also known as LISS) cardio also becomes essential for maintaining mobility into our elder years. In other words: if you’re not walking a lot today, you won’t be able to walk at all later.

I also know that physical fitness has both emotional and physical benefits. I love how I feel when my body is well cared for, and I love how I look when my body is well cared for. But I know that maintaining that state is a life long affair, and I don’t want to spend my life taking hour-long pilates classes that are boring and don’t get me anywhere just for the sake of my emotional and physical wellbeing.

So I decided I’d rather have a discipline. One thing I could spend the rest of my life working on. And that thing for me is ballet. I loved it when we lived in California, but I truly fell in love with it when we moved to Salt Lake City. I attend ballet classes two to three times per week and spend my spare hours stretching or training to improve my ballerina skills. I’m improving my flexibility by stretching to increase my turnout and my splits. I’m getting quality strength training at the barre. And I’m getting plenty of low-intensity cardio by working on my turns and jumps.

Unlike attending a pilates class or spin studio, the work I put in in the studio is actually going somewhere. I can see myself improve at something beautiful. And I get to do it alongside a wonderful community of ballerinas at my studios. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to perform beautiful pirouettes and dance on point, but in the meantime, I love that I have something to work toward and that I’m taking care of my body as a happy byproduct of that fact.

Because I spent my early twenties on my mental health, my late twenties on my mental strength, and my early thirties on my physical fitness and well-being, I am now in the best shape of my life—mentally, emotionally, and physically. Even my husband agrees. I am the happiest I have ever been, I am surrounded by a strong community, and I am in the best shape of my entire life. And that’s why I exercise.

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