How Fitness Became My Drug Of Choice

What you see on the outside doesn’t always reflect what’s going on inside, and that’s often been the case with me. I have years of experience in the health and wellness industry (I’m the Manager of Scientific Affairs here at The Vitamin Shoppe), and I’ve always been proactive in my own health. I train hard, eat well, and use fitness as a way to manage stress. In fact, people I know are pretty impressed that I’ve maintained such a high level of fitness at my age (49!). I’m seen as a strong, tough individual—but like many others, I have my demons.

Those demons stem from my childhood, and I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t been a long, tough battle working through it. As a young boy I had some idea that my mom—God rest her soul—wasn’t like (or didn’t seem like) the other moms in the neighborhood: My mom struggled with severe depression and anxiety for most of her life.

I can recall like it was yesterday seeing my mom ‘act out’. She had a very difficult time controlling her emotions—even in front of us, her kids. From watching her irrational behavior, and feeling such a lack of control over her mental health issues, I developed anxiety and depression as a young child, too.

The one thing that helped center me during this time was sports and fitness. Using my body—especially in an aggressive way—made me feel calm, less angry, and less frustrated with what was going on at home.

I have years of experience in the health and wellness industry, and I’m seen as a strong, tough individual—but like many others, I have my demons.

I was a quiet, shy kid, but when it came to sports (especially football) I was hyper-aggressive, getting great satisfaction from knocking someone over and watching them struggle to get up. To filter through some of that aggression, I also studied martial arts at a dojo. It was a way for me to be aggressive without really hurting people or getting into trouble.

Related: I Became A Fitness Instructor At 44

The dojo became a place for me to release my demons. I was an emotional roller coaster, a volcano waiting to erupt. And I had no idea that I’d need to deal with these sorts of feelings my whole life.

One cold December day when I was 15, I was playing football in the snow with my brother and his friends. I kicked the ball and my brother caught it. My brother was an all-around great athlete. He was fast as hell, even in the snow. As he came charging towards me, I drove straight toward his legs, rolled over, and collided with him. His knee smashed my back with incredible force, knocking the wind out of me and leaving me lying in the snow, unable to move.

I truly thought my back was broken. I couldn’t walk, so they carried me to my house (which was luckily around the corner) and called 911 right as my mom and dad pulled up in the car. As it turned out, I had no broken bones, but in the 1980s they typically didn’t do an MRI or check for orthopedic injuries that might end up affecting you in the long-term. And it wasn’t until four years later, when my back pain got worse and I had an MRI, that I found out that I had a badly herniated disc.

At 19, I had surgery. My orthopedic surgeon said he could repair it and I’d be just fine, but the eight days I spent in the hospital and two months of physical therapy that followed elevated my levels of anxiety and depression. I jumped back into football, hockey, martial arts, and lifting weights way too soon in an effort to feel better mentally. My pain began to feel worse than it did pre-surgery, which only exacerbated my cycle of anxiety and depression.

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Later on, I had epidurals (a spinal cord stimulator implanted to block pain), and I started seeing a chiropractor again—which offered some temporary pain relief caused by the muscle spasms, but did nothing for the shooting, burning pain down my legs caused by a compressed nerve.

As a last resort, I started trying different types of medication: anti-inflammatories, muscle relaxers, and—last but not least—opiates. The medication was effective at reducing the pain, and it also suppressed my anxiety.

I initially thought this was a good thing, but came to realize later on that it really wasn’t—at least for me. The medication was turning me into a different person, numbing me and making me feel very little emotion. So, I took my wife’s advice and quit. My goal was to turn to fitness and health again to deal with my trauma and pain.

Quitting cold turkey was hard; I couldn’t sleep for three months and my pain, anxiety, and depression came back with a vengeance. But I was comforted by my understanding of how the body works: As a scientist, I knew that I could help promote my body’s own production of natural painkillers and mood enhancers (endorphins) through vigorous exercise.

And that’s exactly what I did. I practiced yoga for my back and hit the weights pretty hard to release the anxiety I was feeling. To this day, I train five-six days a week, incorporating all the big lifts (like deadlifts, squats, and bench presses) along with exercises such as sprints, rowing, pullups and burpees. Although I still deal with chronic pain and mood issues like anxiety, it has become much more manageable.

Looking back, I’ve learned so much over the years. I used to let those feelings control me, and now I control them. I even turned to my fitness-focused skillset when my parents got sick and needed care, and then passed away, one after the other within a month. I see every challenge as an opportunity and I never let my anxiety get the best of me. I believe that training every day and making myself uncomfortable (or even miserable at times) pays dividends when facing emotional and physical challenges in life.

To this day, I train five-six days a week. And although I still deal with chronic pain and mood issues like anxiety, it has become much more manageable.

I now look back at all that I went through as a child, teenager, and adult, and I’m proud of how far I’ve come, despite all the challenges. And despite my mother’s illness and the ways it affected me, I don’t blame her. I love her.

Mental health is often overlooked because it isn’t something that can be measured with a blood test or x-ray. In the end, her mental health challenges inspired me to deal with my health in productive ways. I try to live in the moment—not in the past—and enjoy each day as much as possible.

Although I have had these revelations, I still wake up every day with anxiety and pain—and I do worry about aging and its effects on my body. But for now, I have a morning routine to keep me motivated: I throw cold water on my face and start banging out the burpees, squats, and pushups, which helps stabilize my body and my mood. I guess you could say that my go-to drug is exercise—and I don’t see anything wrong with that.

Related: Shop protein products and amp up your fitness routine.