By Sharon Nelson

I’m sitting at a small table across from my personal trainer, Greg Novasky, in an office at the back of the Emerald City Gym in Seattle. I glance around at the coral walls and scribbles on a whiteboard and then I look over at Greg who appears eager to talk about his experience – poised for conversation. He’s leaning forward, with a smile in his blue eyes.

There’s more than one reason I asked Greg to talk with me about fitness and mental health. First, of course, is that he’s a professional in the fitness industry. But just as important, is that he’d previously revealed to me that working out and weight training are activities he’s used to cope with overwhelming emotions of anger and depression. It started with wrestling and mixed martial arts in his teens, then the discovery of the therapeutic aspects of weight lifting in college, to the strenuous workouts he does today. Greg spoke about the benefits of weight training like this, “Lifting weights is not the solution. You still have to work out your problems. But, picking up heavy things and putting down heavy things, helps me find stillness, a calm center. That makes it easier to find solutions.”

Greg first became aware he was experiencing depression in his early 20s, although he can now trace feeling depressed back to the age of 14. It was then that Greg’s father experienced a medical crisis that left him temporality incapacitated. “It was touch and go”, Greg explained. “For a while, we didn’t know if he was gonna make it or not. And it was just me, my mom, and my dad in the house. I wanted to be strong for them. So, I pushed my feelings down. I just didn’t think about ‘em.” Greg described the act of suppressing his emotions to maintain stability as equivalent to “putting on a mask.”  He had learned a way of dealing with his feelings that didn’t require support from anyone and he would repeatedly “put on a mask” in the coming years.

I asked Greg if he’d sought help for depression. “Never. Partially because I’m stubborn. But also I just told myself, it’s fine. It doesn’t matter. Nobody wants to hear about it.” As we talked further, Greg suggested his attitude toward seeking help was based in social stigma and expectations. He explained that he’s had subtle messages that, “as dudes we’re not supposed to have certain kinds of feelings” and direct messages like, “You’re a man. You’re not supposed to have insecurities.”

Through life experiences Greg has recognized that, in order to give to others, he has to take care of himself first. As he put it, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” He added, “Today, I’m more readily able to deal with my depression. I’m more proactive than reactive.”

“What do you mean by that?” I asked.

“I accept that it’s there and am honest about it: whether it’s worse or better. I’m able to pull myself out by seeking support.”

“So, how are you feeling about the management of your depression today?”

Greg answered with a smile, “I feel comfortable.”

Another challenge for Greg has been the tension between societal and familial expectations for him to seek a prestigious career or to choose a career because he finds joy in it. He said, “I’ve felt a lot of pressure to fulfill a vision of success.” Eventually, he decided to pursue that which had helped him and use it to help others; he decided to become a personal trainer.

I asked Greg “How do you feel about your decision to become a personal trainer?”

“Great! I enjoy helping people! I can tell when my clients are feeling down or agitated and I’ll do what I can to help them feel better – a smile, positive attitude, some crisp high fives. Maybe some bad jokes,” he said laughing.

“As far as a workout?” I asked.

“I’ll do something I know my client loves to do or work on something challenging. We’ll make something good happen!”

When Greg meets a new client, he helps them to define their fitness goals. He finds that most people come to the gym to get results such as losing weight or building muscle but they stay because of the way it makes them feel: more confident, less stressed, and overall more healthy. And Greg finds joy in being a part of that process.  In his words, “It makes me feel worthwhile.”