My first encounter with the majesty of Africa was in May 2013. The tarmac at Lusaka’s International Airport was just getting ready to receive the sun’s first rays of the day. Zambia, at 06:10 in the morning welcomed me with the most illuminating sunrise I had ever experienced.
Having been born in Romania with nine of my adolescent years spent living in an environment not too distant from my new Zambian context, I felt I was connecting with a part of myself long lost to my immigrant status in the United States.
Year after year, I found my way back to Zambia and the HIV prevention research that put me there in the first place. With each return, searching for something more carnal and purposeful than the bureaucracy I was entrenched in while working in a highly politicized work environment on Capitol Hill. In 2016, I decided to take the leap of faith, if you will. I relocated to Zambia to pursue full time residence and a career working in Clinical Trials, including HIV vaccine efficacy research.
Tasked with daily challenges, in and out of the office, I knew I had to nourish my mental and physical fortitude if I was going to be successful as 1- a new contributor to this beautiful fabric of the community quilt, and 2- a leader in a high-pace, polyvalent and results-driven work environment I was about to enter.
Early in my expat status, over a braai, I expressed to my new Zambian friend, my affinity for cross training as a way to challenge my body and mind to redefine my limits. My new environment required a much more resilient mindset. We both spoke about exercise as a way of life, a journey dedicated to holistic strength-building as opposed to having a thin body, by society’s standards. I was invigorated by my companion’s instantly positive and energetic response: “Come, let’s work out at my place, I will invite my friends and you can lead us through some exercises!” The following evening after work, I found myself in a lush back yard. We used bricks for weights, sheets and towels for mats, and the entire yard to our disposal for running-integration workouts! After a series of very energetic meet-ups and growth in popularity, I came to call ourselves, ZamFIT (Zambia Fit).
My purpose for ZamFIT at the time: to strengthen mental and physical fortitude, later came as my salvation. This type of mind-and-body interconnected fitness is what I craved in my quest for a healthy balance after finding purpose in my work, a purpose which I would allow to become all-consuming. ZamFIT was my conduit between my life decisions and the consequences of those decisions, helping me to make the most out of my “messy middle”. I relished in my self-designed workouts comprised of heart racing, blood pumping warm-ups, muscle-screaming strength portions and finally “THE” workout, followed by the ‘cash-out’ cool down (the truest test of fitness i.e. show me how much do you really have left in you?). I was addicted to this pattern and rigidity which mimicked my world, my world being my work, outside of the gym. My body had become so accustomed to sore muscles that I actually drew exponential strength from the experience; it became a coping mechanism out in the real world of managing an increasingly demanding job in a highly variable environment. The year 2017 brought about some challenging moments. After a series of more lows than highs while living isolated from close friends and family, including my husband (again, life decisions), I came to see myself as almost robotic, always operating in work-mode and with limited ability to find joy in relaxation, despite daily work accomplishments worthy of celebration (aka consequences of those decisions).
In these stressful times, chemical reactions in my brain responded well to the physical exertion of my own ZamFIT workouts. No matter how badly every fiber of my being wanted to internalize stress, the healing effect of the physical and mental challenge of my exercises repeatedly lifted me above the fray. This one hour each day recharged me and restored my elan for challenging work. I immediately felt the verve of life and instantly felt myself transformed; this one hour …was everything to me.
During this time, I also learned the power of saying things out loud and writing ideas down. As human, we are fundamentally at war with cognitive dissonance. Our actions will always fight to rise and meet our thoughts. The mental fortitude I preached out loud turned out to be the most worthwhile investment in myself, and others. As I yelled fervidly to motivate fellow ZamFIT-ers during workouts, connecting concepts about channeling physical discomfort in workouts at the gym into mental strength in life outside of the gym, I inadvertedly changed my inner dialogue and ultimately strengthened my resilience in stressful situations.
Key takeaways from my story: Act on the burning desire to place yourself outside of your comfort zone to redefine your limits and upgrade the way you experience the world. If you are truly a “Type A” personality and realistic in the realization that you will not be throwing in the towel any time soon, exercise and community can have almost instantaneous healing effects on your mind and body. After all, with just the right ingredients, we can withstand a lot more than we think we are capable of, and then some. Mindfully prioritizing your one hour a day will restore your energy levels and re-wire your brain towards positive thinking for the next day’s challenge.