How lifting weights made me a better activist (and a better person)

I’ve been involved in the animal rights movement for most of my adult life. Being quite a sensitive person, it was not always easy to cope with all the challenges I faced on a daily basis. Sometimes it was just one gruesome video too much, a particularly difficult conversation, an unpleasant outcome of a demonstration or just simply going outside my comfort zone that threw me off balance.

I always thought that, as activists, it is mental strength we need to carry on. And of course, it is something we should all work on, no matter what kind of challenges we are facing, whether it is activism, a work or family situation (or all three combined). But I never thought that cultivating physical strength had so much to offer as well. That it can be a facilitator of other changes.

I was never the sporty type. Sure, I played group games or ran at school, but I also quite often skipped the PE classes. Through the years I tried yoga, dancing, from time to time I went to a fitness class or tried doing something at home. Nothing stuck. Sport never made me happy and because of some problems with my back I just lived a life without any regular physical activity and like many, sometimes felt bad about it but not enough to change my situation.

And then, somehow, when I was in my 30s I went to a kettlebell class and decided to do it once a week. A month later it was twice a week and… do you see the pattern? Yes, it was three and four times a week after that. What happened? I spent a lot of time thinking about it so here is what I found out about my change of attitude.

I started softly, in a beginner group, we met once a week, no pressure, just a nice workout. I felt good in my group. And when I saw that it made me feel good I wanted to do more of it. Wisely, I just added one session a week instead of going there everyday which would probably have been too much for my poor, untrained body. And after some time, when I was regularly attending classes I started to see the effects. Not only the physical ones — I was stronger and stronger, which is easy to see when you work with weights. But I also felt more empowered.

It was as if with every lift I made or every personal record I broke I believed in myself a little bit more.

And then, after 2 or 3 years I made it to the “Top Team” — a group of advanced kettlebell trainees who have to do some very demanding exercises. To cut a long story short it was honestly the hardest thing I had ever physically done. I, a person who a few years earlier would not have been able to lift even the lightest weight or do a single pushup managed to prepare for this challenge. I never skipped my workouts, I followed a rigorous plan and diet, concentrating on the goal as never before. I don’t often say that I am proud of myself but this time I was.

It helped me on so many levels that it will sound very pompous but it really made me a better person. And a better activist! I have been involved in animal rights for many years, I experienced burnout, trauma and struggled not to give up. Looking at it now I see that I lacked support but also lacked resilience. And workouts helped me build one.

I often feel stressed, in my personal life as well as professional one. But I know that many of my problems can be put in the right perspective when I go and have a heavy training session. For this one hour (or more) I just concentrate on the weight, to not let it fall, to mobilize my whole strength, so it does not leave much space to brood over other matters.

And afterwards, when the endorphins arrive, I feel stronger and I feel that no matter what I will go on.

Activism is not easy. It will often challenge you, you will experience and witness things that you would rather never know about. But we have to do it, as the situation will not change if we turn away from it. And we can’t afford to lose people over and over again, we must build a strong community, supportive, effective and resilient.

I strongly believe that sport can play a crucial role in that. Before you say that it’s not for you, go back to the beginning of this article. It was “not for me” either. I was in my 30s — my body was not flexible nor strong. But when you find an activity that makes you feel better, healthier, stronger, why not give it a try? Nowadays it is easier than ever. You can join a class, find a personal trainer, find a group training together or even follow a Youtube channel (although I strongly believe in the power of group support when training together). There are so many activities to choose from. It doesn’t have to be weights. It worked for me, because it is a combination of building strength and endurance but you can try martial arts, running, crossfit… whatever works for you. Just remember that the first training may not make you long for more, sometimes it is worth doing something for a month or even longer to see if it is good for you.

I know many people from the movement who would agree. They have found the perfect activity that works best for them, which also doesn’t mean they will never change it. They run, climb, go to the gym, lift heavy weights or box, train different martial arts or play tennis. The choices are endless, the one thing in common is that they all engage in it quite intensively and regularly. The regularity also has an additional benefit of being something stable in an often hectic activist life.

And do you know, what a great feeling you will have when you do something for the first time that you had struggled with for a long time? My first pull-up was a big celebration for me!

Scientists say that sport reduces anxiety, decreases cortisol levels, increases energy, takes your mind away from your stresses, increases the amount of endorphins, not to mention the health aspects. The list surely is much longer but all these aspects are nothing compared to the feeling of achievement and fulfilment you will get after a good workout session. Please give it a try!

What I also learned from my workouts is that the cliché that you should compare yourself with yourself only and not others is really important and true. We all have different backgrounds, possibilities, genes, time… I still struggle sometimes with simple things that come naturally to someone who has trained for years or just happens to have a better flexibility. And sure, it still often makes me frustrated but then I try to remind myself that a few years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do the things that I am doing now. And if something doesn’t come to you easily, it’s not a reason to give up but to carry on. And sure, if you start working out quite late in your life you will probably not become a professional athlete. But it doesn’t mean you will not enjoy working out and seeing all the benefits that come with it!

So if you are an activist it will be better for you, and the animals, if you at least from time to time engage in some sporting activity, trust me.

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