A Closed Gym, A Lost Community, and the Toll it Has Taken on Karen Armstrong’s Health

May 14, 2021 by
Credit Marc Doucette @marc.marc.marc
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Last week, we reported on a new study based out of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario that illustrated how a lack of access to gyms due to COVID-19 closures has been devastating for mental health.

Today we introduce you to Karen Armstrong, a 10-plus year member at Sled Dog Strength and Conditioning in Thunder Bay, Ontario, a gym that — notwithstanding a short period last summer when they were open for outdoor workouts — has been closed since the first wave of the pandemic hit in March 2020.

Her story: “For me, the gym is my safe place,” 53-year-old Armstrong began. “It’s a piece where I can go and be me…This time belonged to me.”

She continued: “That space and time to myself carried me through some tough times, where I learned to breathe and be strong. I developed my strength, both physical and mentally. It’s a place of my own.”

Fast forward to 2020: Armstrong’s husband retired and she was forced to work from her basement. At the same time, the parents of her two-and-a-half year-old grandson separated. 

In the aftermath, her grandson’s mother attempted suicice and was recently arrested for a DUI and assault, and her grandson’s father (her son), who suffers from anxiety and depression, works long shifts that makes it difficult for him to look after his son on his own. As a result, Armstrong and her husband have become full-time caregivers to their grandchild.

“Becoming responsible for a small child is not something I thought would be happening at the age of 53, let alone one with the challenges of being non-verbal and (with) autism,” she said. 

Credit Laura Heerema Photography

Needless to say, in a pre-pandemic world, the gym would have been there to help her cope with the stress, but this was no longer an option.

At first, things were manageable, Armstrong explained.

“A few of us members set up times to meet in the late afternoon and workout together via video. I borrowed some dumbbells and things were OK,” she said.  But this changed after Christmas.

“I was back to full time hours at my job but still working from home. Gyms were still unavailable and my little space I used to workout in my home has become a play area for my grandson. I was lucky enough to pick up a set or two of dumbbells of my own, but the motivation to use them consistently was missing,” Armstrong said. 

Being cut off from her gym and her social support network of friends started to take its toll, and her stress began to increase as it “had no place to be released,” she explained. 

“I don’t feel as strong mentally or physically. I almost feel the same as I did before I ever started  with regular exercise. Lost and without direction,” she continued. 

She added: “I feel like that person I found (through fitness) has been pushed back to a small corner. I shut down and go on autopilot. It’s hard to find a quiet place to regroup and collect my thoughts.”

“This will pass”: What has been helping her is telling herself this will pass, reminding herself of what her gym community and the fitness she once had gave her and will hopefully give her again one day, and remembering all of the things the coaches at Sled Dog have taught her over the years.

Armstrong had the words “breathe be strong” tattooed on her arm, reminiscent of how her coaches used to always tell her to breathe and stay strong during a WOD. “But it applies to life just as much,” she said.

 “I am grateful for the things I have been able to do…but I do look forward to getting back to my place where I can become myself again,” she said.

“I try to draw on that strength that is within. I hear that coach in my head telling me to finish strong. I know this will pass.”

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