TTLG: It Begins with Mental Health

by Amanda Corrigan | 3/3/16 7:15pm

Walking onto Dartmouth’s campus in late summer, you can immediately spot a First-Year Trips group getting ready to embark on its journey through the mountains. Runners jog through the streets and across the Green. Athletes go to and from practice, laden with duffel bags and equipment.

Regarding fitness, we have an incredibly diverse group of people here at Dartmouth. Some just love to go to the gym; others are varsity athletes, club athletes or intramural athletes. Then there are the so-called NARPs (“non-athletic regular people”). Students participate in a variety of dietary habits. We have vegetarians, vegans and omnivores as well as people who are gluten-free or lactose-intolerant. We have beautiful paths to run on and a general athletic facility with a pool, basketball court and fully equipped gym. The Green can be utilized for a variety of activities. Regardless of whether you are a varsity athlete or a recreational gym goer, your fitness and nutrition journey must start somewhere.

Over the course of almost two years now at Dartmouth, I have thought a lot about my views on how to start and maintain a healthy lifestyle. After talking to many others, a common thread I always found was that people need to workout because they “need to lose weight,” “get in shape for summer,” or “burn off those Foco cookies or late night EBAs.” Others without a doubt participate in exercise solely because they enjoy it, they feel good and it is something they truly enjoy. Whatever the purpose, fitness and nutrition do not start with the first workout or the first healthy meal. The beginning of your physical health journey starts with your mental health. Without accepting where you are currently both physically and mentally and practicing self-compassion, you run the risk of altering your fitness and nutrition for the wrong reasons. I, personally, learned this the more difficult way.

The gym was always a place of solace for me – the place to go to de-stress from all my work, get away from my friends and responsibilities and just put on my headphones to focus on me. Looking around at the gym, you can see people from various age groups working on a variety of goals as you hear the loud music blaring and the periodic sound of weights hitting the floor. I always felt happy at the gym; the only obstacle I had to face was pushing through some long cardio to feel that well-deserved endorphin rush in the end. I had a good routine, often beginning my days with exercise to set the ball rolling for everything I had to tackle throughout a day at Dartmouth.

But a seemingly good routine of long hours at the gym, combined with inadequate college eating and the stress of my transition to a rigorous college amounted to a reevaluation of my health in many aspects. What I came to realize is that I lost that sense of happiness in the gym and started adding my workout routine to the long list of things I had to do. It was no longer something I enjoyed, just something seemingly healthy that did not involve more academic work. On top of already having my club team’s practices and games, it amounted to a lot of physical strain. Lacking the knowledge on how to maintain adequate nutrition, I started feeling extremely drained and fatigued. It took me awhile before I came to realize how much I needed to alter my exercise and nutrition in order to become the healthier college student I knew I could be.

But, before I could even go about making any changes, what I had to do was accept myself and be compassionate about what I was going through. Not acknowledging my mental health and thinking of this process as completely physical was my mistake. Self-compassion was always the part of any class at which I stopped listening, thinking that it was silly and that of course I was fine with who I was. Little did I know listening to the lessons on how to build on gratitude for yourself, accepting your own body and its capabilities and being gentle with yourself could have helped me in the long run.

Come my sophomore year, I had definitely learned a lot about myself and built strong relationships that helped me rebuild my mental and physical health. Those strong relationships helped me find acceptance and compassion for myself, which helped me learn new ways to go about working out and eating well. I came into the gym with a completely new mentality, working on building my strength and appreciating what my body can do, rather than mindlessly doing hours of cardio. I was motivated to learn more about nutrition and how to properly adjust my eating habits and expand my palate beyond Foco. I had to step out of my comfort zone and commit to eating and exercising in ways I never had before. It is very easy to get caught up comparing yourself to others, which can create these ideas of what you think you should be doing with your body. Instead, your road to health is a very personalized journey tailored to your specific needs and goals.

This is something especially important for us to remember as students in a very rigorous and challenging environment. We are constantly being pushed forward — academically and socially — and, when we push ourselves that extra step, it can definitely take its toll physically and mentally. Our goal as college students is to ensure that we are getting the most out of our experience, which can be challenging when we are not grateful for all that we have accomplished up to this point. Although that may not relate directly to fitness and nutrition, gratitude plays a role in realizing that before you can make changes to your exercise or nutrition routines, you have to appreciate yourself.

Health is subjective and means something different to every person. Your ideal workout and meal most likely differs greatly from the person sitting next to you, and that is okay. My motivation to step back into the gym with a fresh mind was to see how strong I could become and really appreciate all the steps I had taken to get there. Lifting weights was foreign to me, but I was willing to try new things as I loved to learn and grow. Trying something new brought back the joy I once had for fitness. What’s more, at Dartmouth I can learn from and alongside my more experienced friends. Overall, what I have learned throughout my time here, especially with regards to nutrition and fitness, is that in order to promote optimal health you have to start with acceptance and compassion for yourself. My fitness and nutrition journey has been rocky, but I would not change a thing because it has helped me work towards overall health and happiness.