I am a full-time Pilates instructor and mom of two adult children. I am also a person with depression. My experience is common—in fact, according to National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 16.2 million adults in the United States experienced at least one major depressive episode in 2016. This number was almost twice as high in women than men. But when I first started working in fitness, I was afraid that my struggles might make me unfit for my career.
Fitness professionals have a reputation for being upbeat, high energy, focused, and driven. That’s just simply not the truth for me all of the time. There are days when I don’t want to get out of bed, let alone train my clients or work out. But being depressed and good at my job are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m an amazing instructor—I have clients that have trained with me for almost a decade. I now know that, but I didn’t always feel that way—and it took me a long time to finally be at peace with my mental health struggles.
I’ve dealt with bouts of depression since I was a kid, and first saw in middle school that exercise could help me cope.
The first time I remember being depressed was in elementary school. I didn’t know how to express what was going on, mostly because I didn’t understand why I was feeling so bad about myself. In middle school, I was bullied, which exacerbated my feelings of depression.
I first started to feel the impact fitness had on my mental health in seventh grade. I tried out for the cheerleading squad—my friends and teachers encouraged me to do it, and I was looking for a way to feel better, so I decided I’d give it a try. I found that I loved moving, and I loved how it made me feel, physically and mentally. By the time I got to college, I was lifting and running a few days per week. The results were amazing: Not only was my body changing and getting stronger, but my mood improved drastically. I noticed that, when I worked out regularly, I was more confident and had fewer days of depression.
Exercise hasn’t always been enough—I’ve sought professional help as well, which has been extremely beneficial.
After college, I became a social worker, got married, and had kids. I found myself juggling so many responsibilities. In 1999, my family and I moved from Texas to New York City, and I had a difficult time adjusting. I also returned to my full-time job after being home with my 4-month-old son, which put even more of a strain on me mentally and emotionally. As I tried to navigate it all—a new social services system, a new city, and my responsibilities as a mother and wife—my depression deepened. To make matters worse, I also wasn’t able to work out very much, because I was so busy and overwhelmed.
At work, I felt like an imposter. Here I was sitting on the other side of the desk encouraging my clients to exercise, eat healthy, go to therapy, and take medication, yet I was not practicing what I was preaching.
After a conversation with my primary doctor and a long one with myself, I decided that I needed more help. I started going to therapy once a week and taking a low dose of antidepressants as prescribed by my doctor. I did this for a few years, and it helped keep my depression at bay.
It was around this time that I discovered Pilates, which eventually prompted me to pursue a career in fitness.
I began taking Pilates classes twice a week after a friend recommended I try it, around 2006. I didn’t expect how big of an impact it would make on my mental health. Pilates isn’t just about physical fitness or raw strength: The exercises require practice, memory, and skill. I found that with every new move I worked on, I felt more focused, gained a sense of accomplishment, and improved my confidence. This form of movement was healing for me, and in particular, helped heal how I saw myself.
Pilates changed my life so much that a year later I decided to get certified to teach it so I could share the benefits with others. I am not saying that Pilates completely healed me of depression, but it certainly gave me better coping skills. I was breathing much better and I felt more confident, and both of those things ultimately helped me get better at expressing my feelings instead of suppressing them.
In the beginning, I worried that my depression would preclude me from having a successful career in fitness.
Most of the fitness professionals I admired seemed to be happy all the time. Rarely had I seen anyone in fitness discuss anything too personal online besides their workouts or diets. I started to wonder if I was trying to make it in a world where I didn’t belong.
But I knew I didn’t want to hide. I wanted to live truthfully, even if it meant being open about my depression.
I knew I wanted to be honest with my clients, friends, and family about my depression. It took me several years to allow myself to be vulnerable on social media, but once I was, I realized that my honesty didn’t scare clients away. Being an Instagram-perfect instructor doesn’t make you relatable the way being honest about your struggles does. Plus, maybe I could help or inspire people to begin therapy or exercise, and perhaps telling my story would open the door for other fitness professionals to share theirs.
Opening up about my mental health has helped me find comfort by connecting with other women in my community who have similar experiences.
To be honest, I used to be afraid of being stigmatized as “crazy," especially because of my previous experiences with disclosing my feelings to people. I felt like I was supposed to keep my personal issues to myself. Going to therapy wasn’t something that we spoke about much in my community.
But as I learned more about the structural barriers to mental health care for people of color in the U.S. and the lack of culturally competent psychologists—and how these issues have contributed to a complicated relationship between black communities and mental healthcare—the more I thought about how all of this has played into my ideas about my own mental health.
Over the years, I’ve found a lot of comfort in meeting other black women who aren’t afraid to talk about mental health. Within the last few years, platforms like The Black Girl Healing Project and Therapy for Black Girls have opened the doors for more discussion and provided safe spaces for those of us who struggle in the black community. And last year I founded Black Girl Pilates during a very depressing time in my life. I was questioning my life’s purpose and feeling very lonely as one of few black women that I knew in the Pilates community. This ended up being a positive catalyst for me to start my platform—I wanted to provide a safe space for black female Pilates instructors to talk about what it’s like to teach in very white spaces.
As a black woman, the effects of white supremacy and privilege, as well as micro-aggressions, can take an emotional toll. Imagine having to teach after Charlottesville, or after the death of Sandra Bland. These events created an additional layer of fear and anxiety for me and other black women I know. All of this made it even more important to me to find (and give other women) a safe community to connect with others with similar experiences.
I still have depression. There are days where I want to crawl under a rock and not be seen. But I have more good days than bad.
I am convinced that the more I move my body, whether it’s through yoga, Pilates, throwing around kettlebells, dancing, or whatever, I will feel better. I am not always consistent, but I allow myself those inconsistencies because I am not perfect.
But I know it's not just fitness that has helped. Therapy, medicine, finding a support system, eating foods that make me feel great, journaling, and finding mentors (some I know personally and some I just follow on social media, but they all are people who talk about their struggles openly) have all helped me move beyond the bad days and have more good days.
And if you relate to my struggles, remember: You are not alone. We are not alone. Depression is a part of who I am but it does not define me or my expertise as a fitness instructor, and it doesn’t have to define you, either.