Physical Activity as a Coping Mechanism: My Life Journey

Low Entropy Volunteer Writer Kathy Woudzia shares the positive, lasting impact of exercise on both her physical and mental health.

Please note that this article discusses relationship abuse and substance use.

I have spent the past 50+ years with many ups and downs. With more downs than ups, I’ve found constancy and solace in physical activity and exercise. I grew up in the small farming and summer resort town of Osoyoos, BC. My immigrant parents escaped penniless from Slovenia to Canada to find a better life. Dad was in the business of purchasing land and building homes. Mom was working hard at the fruit packing plant. We were lucky Dad had the foresight to purchase a large piece of land on Osoyoos Lake where he built our first home. In those days, land was cheap, so though we appeared rich owning lake property, we were truly anything but.

As children, we spent our days swimming in the lake, playing in the sand, and riding second-hand bikes that were far too large for our small statures. Although more time went into biking accidents than actual riding, we always climbed back onto the seats triumphantly. When Dad saved enough money, he bought a used ski boat so my brother and I could learn water skiing. The boat was constantly breaking down at the most inopportune moments, including the middle of the lake, so many days we were paddling to shore rather than skiing. When we became proficient at two skis, Dad insisted we try one. While most people learn to slalom ski by dropping a ski once already in the upright riding position, Dad was adamant we learn from the more challenging one ski, deep water, start. After weeks of practicing, my brother and I succeeded on the same day, greatly pleasing Dad. In the winter months, we skated on the frozen lake, where Dad spent his scarce free time clearing snow for hockey games on great spans of ice. He bought us snow skis so we could ski on our local mountain, too. Growing up, I never thought of these activities as fitness; it was just life. In hindsight, they were my first introductions to the amazing psychological benefits of exercise.

Dad was a control freak who dominated every aspect of my life. I was his project. That meant straight As in tough academic courses. I coped, during these rigorous senior high school years,with cannabis use. Growing up, I did not see myself as athletically inclined. I simply wasn’t doing the kinds of things typical athletes did. I was a second-string basketball player and a third-string field hockey player. My brother was a fourth-string hockey player. In order to escape the pressures of academics, I enrolled in what I presumed would be the easiest course: PE 12, or 12th Grade Physical Education. Once I understood that the opportunities my parents gave us as children were, in fact, a form of physical exercise, I came to the realization that physical activity was not only fun, but powerful for coping in life. It was in PE 12 that I learned about the freeing power of distance running as a coping mechanism. Running was the antidote to an overbearing father.

By the age of 19 I met Joe. I escaped the control of my father by marrying this man who was abusive and yes, controlling. Before the age of 26, I gave birth to three children. Due to his struggles with alcoholism, Joe was neglectful in raising our children, while his abusive nature made it more difficult to parent than if he had left us entirely. In order to cope, I went back to what I knew best: running and cycling. In the early hours of the morning, while my children and husband were asleep, I would lace up my running shoes and go for a beautiful 10k run. If just for an hour, I felt a sense of freedom on those daily runs where there were no restraints on me or my life. The high I felt from the running endorphins enabled me to carry on with each day.

After birthing my third child, I developed lymphedema in my left leg: a physically and emotionally debilitating disease. I was being challenged and controlled yet again, as the disease caused extreme swelling in my leg. I wore a support garment, which made me feel self-conscious. Doctors told me that any and all forms of exercise may worsen the lymphedema. Back then, lymphedema studies were the wild west and my physicians hardly knew how to treat me. My entire world was crashing down. The anxiety was relentless. I went through a period of deep depression until I determined that I could not accept this fate. Knowledge is power and I took initiative by educating myself about lymphedema. I searched for a physician who supported fitness as an invaluable coping mechanism. I implored him to write me a letter as proof that I could, in fact, continue to keep physical activity in my life. I resumed my running and cycling. These activities provided me a renewed sense of freedom: freedom to move and move on; to accept my disease. In fact, when you read about lymphedema now, there is great emphasis put on physical activity in treatment of the affected limb, as well as emotional coping.

The ups and downs have continued. I went through divorce, remarriage, the birth of another child, and then a big blow when one of my daughters and her partner became addicted to OxyContin and later, heroin. My granddaughter, their child, was born addicted to opioids. Three years later, my daughter succumbed to her illness and passed away of an accidental overdose. One year afterwards, my brother and only sibling passed away from complications due to alcoholism. Six months later, my second marriage deteriorated, and I now find myself living alone. Throughout these years, there was one thing I could always count on: whatever you call it, physical activity, exercise, or fitness, it always comes to my rescue. I’ve hiked, walked, ran, cycled, lifted weights, and attended spinning, aerobics, and yoga classes. You name the fitness activity, I have done it. Moving my body, whether a few minutes per day or a few times per week, provides a sense of freedom and a break from the overwhelming challenges life offers.

Enter COVID-19: I find myself alone in an apartment with very few connections. My life, once completely enveloped in the raising of children, is that no longer. Three of my children left home, as they are now grown up and leading their own lives, while one is no longer with us. I find myself very lonely. I gave up a career and friends to raise my children. Now I find myself with spans of time and nothing to do. In addition, COVID-19 has turned the lives of many upside down, with social distancing putting many of us in the precarious position of further social isolation. Despite these challenges, I remember that I have complete control over one important aspect of my life; what remains a constant in my life and something that I can always count on is fitness.

According to American psychiatrist Dr. William Glasser, our behaviour and choices are determined by the five following genetically driven needs: survival (food, shelter, security, breathing, personal safety), belonging/love, power (significance, competence, control), fun (learning), and freedom (autonomy). Fitness has the ability to fill those voids. You might ask how fitness can possibly do this: Love/belonging? Join a gym, a live fitness streaming group, or an online meetup group. Power? Fitness can give you a feeling of strength and confidence to overcome difficult situations as they arise. Fun? Fitness can be fun if you choose something you love. If you hate running, don’t run. Find something you love to do and you’ll keep doing it. Freedom? It is freeing to make your own choices, whether big or small, and fitness is that completely personal choice.

There have been many days where, in spite of years of knowing that each time I exercise, I feel better, I could not bring myself to perform an activity. I was worried I would not be able to finish that 10k run, or work hard enough on my bike. But I have also given myself permission to fail. I give myself a choice to attempt the activity for five minutes, and if I am not “feeling it”, I give myself permission to stop. Inevitably, I end up enjoying myself, immersed in sweat and hard work. Between the endorphine release and feelings of accomplishment, I feel ready to continue on with the rest of my day and the challenges life has to offer. Whatever the emptiness in your life, fitness is a way to gain your control back.

What role does fitness play in your life? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments section, or join one of Low Entropy’s free personal development meetings to learn from and connect with others who have navigated their own difficult situations.

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