Banishing anxiety and fear: a fitness journey

Banishing anxiety and fear: a fitness journey

I knew I needed to get back to my exercise routine when the doctor didn’t hesitate to prescribe Xanax. It was the remedy for what he diagnosed as anxiety attacks after listening earnestly to my tale of feeling hopeless every day. His assistant handed me the tablets on my way out, and a new wave of anxiety engulfed me. I’d read about the downside of taking antidepressants.

I was living abroad then, yet the memory remains vivid. I didn’t touch the tablets and went back to exercising, battling intermittent anxiety attacks and fear of food.

Getting started

My fitness journey actually started when I joined the University of the Philippines’ Ladies Football Team when I was in college. Being a varsity player was a strong impetus to do strength training because I lacked muscular endurance, and thus I lifted weights, favoring machines like the leg curl and extension, and hip adduction-abduction. Combining strength training with regular jogs around the UP Academic Oval and scrimmages helped me to stay muscle fatigue and avoid injuries.

One of the benefits of resistance training is lowering the risk of injury because it “improves the strength, joint range of motion, and mobility of muscles, ligaments, and tendons,” wrote Katey Davidson in

Another is making bones stronger. The temporary stress on the bones “sends message to bone-building cells to take action and rebuild bones stronger, [reducing] the risk of osteoporosis,” she continued.

I was a klutz in ball handling because, ideally, football dribbling should be developed at a young age, not at 18, but Coach Mike was unfazed. He made players do their best on the pitch and he took chances, like moving me from my fullback position to play forward in a match at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines in Santa Mesa, Manila. He (and my Pop) never let up in cheering me on despite my constant fumbling with the ball. Sadly, he left the team just as I’d finally synchronized football training and weight lifting perfectly into my schedule.

Still, I continued with weight training, making it into a full-body workout. It helped to balance my roiling emotions of disappointment with Coach Mike’s departure and frustration at feeling like a lame duck under the new one.

Silencing the noise

The Smith machine squat is a great alternative to barbell squats in working out the legs. —PHOTOS BY LIANA GARCELLANO

Exercise was a way to combat stress and the prejudices against a Filipino feminist-freethinker when I was living abroad. I included kickboxing to my strength training, which focused on a split body workout using the Smith machine squat, leg press, T-bar, and assisted pull-up. Working off the layers of aggravations to the point of exhaustion prevented me from brooding on the toxicity of my work environment.

But while my workout was physically cathartic, my mental health took a nosedive. A heavy disquiet plagued me because work became a matter of “protecting my ass,” a former boss’ nugget of wisdom, and dodging colleagues—including compatriots—on the lookout for scapegoats. It led to an unhealthy relationship with food: I began stress eating and, feeling guilty the day after, I’d exercise longer. It got worse if I didn’t work out because I’d skip meals to atone. I viewed carbs and sweets as the enemies and “cheat day” as a justification for stuffing myself.

Davidson mentioned that strength training boosted one’s self-esteem and helped in overcoming challenges, but not in my case. The challenges became a gnawing anxiety, which, fortunately, yoga silenced. An inner-ear imbalance limited the asanas I could do, and so I gravitated towards the gentler hatha yoga and poses like plank, downward-facing dog, triangle, warrior, etc.

Apart from building strength, balance, and flexibility, “yoga gets you in the right mindset and prepares the body to fall asleep and stay asleep. It also increases your physical and mental energy, and boosts alertness and enthusiasm, [resulting] in lesser negative feelings,” according to

With the newly learned equanimity, I didn’t engage with toxic people, including those who belittled me for my inability to do a headstand. I learned, too, that practicing yoga wasn’t about being more flexible than others, but working through personal issues to become a better version of one’s self.

Exercising at home

With a yoga mat and blocks, toning ball, and kettlebells, your home gym is ready.

When the pandemic lockdown closed the gyms, I discovered online home gym through Miguel “Miggy” Cruz. The UP Diliman sports science graduate ran Cruz Power Fitness online, customizing workouts based on his clients’ goals and equipment on hand. My tailor-made routine focused on my goal of general fitness and using kettlebells, toning ball, yoga mat, and yoga blocks.

I added walking to the mix. Walking plays second fiddle to running because of its “larger muscle recruitment, greater force exerted, and faster motion capability,” pointed out John Ford in an report. But the certified exercise physiologist also acknowledged that walking is a good form of exercise that can help with fitness and weight-loss goals.

Physically, walking improves cardiac health, endurance, blood circulation, etc. Mentally, walking leads to a healthier mental state, according to a Stanford University study titled “Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking.”

“Walking had a large effect on creativity. Most of the participants benefited from walking…, and the average increase in creative output was around 60 percent,” said study authors Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz.

Another study said that walking in nature “[reduces] ruminating over negative experiences, which increases activity in the brain associated with negative emotions and raises risk of depression,” reported

I’m now home after two decades of living abroad, and my fitness journey continues. But my approach has changed. I don’t feel a great need to work out in a gym to be fit. I follow Miggy’s advice of “letting the body recover for 24 hours” before exercising again. I still do Miggy’s home gym workout, which is without the complicated combinations that expose one to debilitating injuries. I eat the “evil” carbs and sweets without guilt. Most importantly, I listen to myself: Shall I work out today, or tomorrow? Shall I rest, or push myself?

My days of exercising following the mantra “No pain, no gain” are long over.

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