‘Veteran With a Sign’ Zachary Bell on Coupling Exercise with Mental Health: “It can be the mind’s greatest reset”

September 15, 2022 by
Photo Credit: Zachary Bell
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Zachary Bell, known more commonly as “Veteran with a Sign,” has a simple message for people who are struggling with mental health issues. Bell, who served with the Marines from 2007-11, first enlisting when he was 19, said the mind is nothing without the body, and vice versa. Explanation: physical fitness is mental health fitness.

“What I love about fitness and in particular CrossFit, is this is stuff you will use,” said Bell, who has been doing CrossFit since 2014 when he first went to CrossFit FreeFlow in Franklin, TN. “You need stronger legs, you need a stronger back to be able to move and do cardio, these are things you need to have a higher quality functioning life. It’s not about how big my biceps are, it’s how I can make my heart work better.”

Bell, who is most famously known for his Instagram page “Veteran With a Sign” in which Bell holds funny, sarcastic, emotionally and philosophically short but potent cardboard signs up, said one of the biggest mental hurdles people have when trying to incorporate fitness into their lives is worrying about how they stack up.

“Nobody is good at it, it sucks, I was working out before this, I wasn’t like, ‘this is great.’ I would rather eat a bag of potato chips and get lost on YouTube, but the way you feel afterwards is so much better.”

September is National Suicide Awareness Month, and Bell is a constant champion for mental health awareness, and one of the reasons he created the Instagram page in the first place, as a way for people to talk to each other, create meaningful dialogue and become better in the process. Seventy-nine percent of suicide victims are male, and mental health is a serious issue for the military.

Veteran suicide rates hit a new post-9/11 high recently. In 2021, research found that 30,177 active duty personnel and veterans who served in the military after 9/11 died by suicide – compared to the 7,057 service members killed in combat in those same 20 years. That is, military suicide rates are four times higher than deaths that occurred during military operations.

Bell –  who donates portions of the profits he makes to Hunter Seven Foundation or the Boot Campaign – said part of this is starting with the idea of prevention, but also allowing military veterans, who are trained and bred to be tough, to realize that weakness is not something to hide, frown upon or feel ashamed about. In fact, when looking through the lens of fitness and mental health as a unit working together for one’s self, it can be the exact opposite.

Bell used himself as an example, right now he’s working on running more, because of the simple fact that running has never been a strong suit for him physically. The idea, Bell said, is that deficiencies are never set in stone. 

“I don’t know if turning our weaknesses into strengths is the perfect way to put it, but we have the ability to improve our weaknesses, and that is what is so awesome about.”

He continued that fitness, whether it’s running, or CrossFit, or lifting heavy sandbags, which he likes to do regularly outside his house, can offer the mind a “reset” and allow us to expel negative emotions that may have been building up. 

“It’s kind of a way to check in as well, my car broke down yesterday, and it broke down the day before that, thank God it’s getting fixed now, but I missed a workout two days in a row and I was starting to feel it. I was starting to feel it in my mind.”

Bell said it all adds up. If he is taking care of his body, he can take care of his mind, and then take care of the people he loves around him, which includes his wife and two daughters. This is part of his Instagram page, creating strong communities where people are able to put the best versions of themselves forward to friends, family members and loved ones. 

“We find the best versions of ourselves when we apply pressure, and too often we as people become comfortable, we slouch, I don’t want to sound like a guy who just led a spiritual camp or Tony Robbins, but my weakness was most present was I wasn’t present as a father for my daughters … just being there for them, that is the best feeling ever and that is always my focus, to take care of the people I love and I can’t do that if I don’t feel that myself.”  

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

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