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How Exercise Helps With Depression

How Fitness Became the "Drug" That Helped 1 Trainer Overcome Depression

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From the outside looking in, Massy Arias is the be-all and end-all of Instagram-famous fitness stars. She has more than 2 million social media followers who look to her for exercise tips, daily inspiration, and healthy recipe ideas. On top of that, she's developed her own fitness programs, bounced back after giving birth to her adorable baby daughter, and is the brand ambassador for C9 Champion, Target's affordable activewear line.

But life hasn't always been so picture-perfect for Massy. In fact, about five years ago, Massy hit "rock bottom" in a battle against depression, and exercise was the saving grace that helped her come out victorious. We sat down with Massy to chat about how exercise impacted her life for the better, and her story is beyond inspiring.

At the age of 13, Massy moved to the US from the Dominican Republic, knowing no English and practically starting from scratch. The transition was a challenge, forcing her to become a fully independent working adult at just 17 years old, she told POPSUGAR. When she graduated from high school, Massy had the opportunity to attend her "dream college," but after learning that her brother was diagnosed with cancer, she opted to go to a local school and live at home in New York so she could be close to her family. Between a part-time job, full-time school schedule, and daily visits to the hospital, Massy was spread pretty thin, and her hectic agenda was taking its toll.

A recent photo of Massy flexing at the gym

Although her brother's condition improved over time, Massy's mental health took a nosedive when she got into a "bad" relationship. "I completely lost myself. I lost the love I had for myself and my body. It was just a bad relationship that shifted everything I wanted to do," she explained to us. "I felt like I was just breathing; I wasn't living. I felt like a zombie, a robot, just doing things over and over and over again, and I didn't feel like I was going anywhere."

"Depression actually hurts. Your body aches."

For eight whole months, Massy lived in her room. At her lowest point, she weighed 114 pounds, wasn't showering for weeks at a time, and began losing her hair. "My body started pretty much eating itself because I wasn't eating," she said. "Some people struggle with depression and they overeat, but I was just not eating." On top of that, her body was in pain. "Depression actually hurts," she said. "Your body aches."

One day, Massy woke up and realized she had, quite literally, a life-or-death decision staring her in the face. "I was like, if I don't do something different, I'm gonna lose my life. It was either continuing on that path, and I don't know where I would've been, or doing something else." And what did she choose? "I started by just moving," she said. Though she still didn't weigh much, Massy began by hopping on the elliptical to get her body in motion. Five-minute elliptical sessions soon turned into 10-minute ones as she slowly but surely gained strength. Soon after she started, 10 minutes wasn't enough, so she upped it to 30 and then 45 minutes and increased the elliptical's resistance until she got the "mental release" she so desperately needed.

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Massy with her baby daughter, Indira

When the elliptical just wasn't cutting it anymore, Massy looked to other exercising avenues like weight training, continuing to strengthen her body, which previously "couldn't even do three push-ups in a row," she admitted. "Fitness really shaped my life — not only the exercise part," she said. Besides gaining muscle, Massy was also meeting new people at the gym — people who were holding her accountable and pushing her to try new things. Plus, exercise was occupying her mind and thus easing the effects of a depression that had so recently held her captive in her bedroom. "I used exercise as a drug — as a form of relieving or curing my depression," she said in a video about her personal fitness journey.

"I used exercise as a drug — as a form of relieving or curing my depression."

Nowadays, you can find Massy inspiring women everywhere to look beyond the purely physical benefits of exercise to see how much working out can help improve one's mental health. Though she does have a killer six-pack and quads that rival the cartoon Hercules, she assured us why she really works out. "I train for mental health. I don't train for a body. I train to be a beast," she said.

Looking back on her long and winding journey, she admitted she was pretty awestruck at how far she's come. She started with no background in fitness except dance and also had exercise-induced asthma growing up. But her body adapted over time as she slowly but surely added movement to her routine. "It was really cool to see how amazing your body is and how it can adapt . . . That's the beauty of exercise — just when you think you've reached that point, there's always something more you can do."

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