John Zvonek has been in mental health recovery for 12 years since he was age 25.
“I had to find healthy habits,” he said. “I had to take my recovery seriously that meant no drinking, drugs and be as healthy as I could possibly be.”
He gained 80 pounds in one month because of his psych meds and so he began a journey into fitness. His first goal was to lose weight but after awhile he began to love it, making it his career by becoming a certified personal trainer. He discovered ways to let negative energy out through workouts and now helps others learn this trick.
“Exercise became an outlet. I do it for sanity not the vanity,” he said. “My goal is not to have a beachbody, my goal is to be mentally well.”
“Getting strong physically builds your mental health and your confidence,” Zvonek said.
Zvonek who is involved in youth mental health first aid, a NAMI peer facilitator and recently spoke on a panel for the NAMI Connecticut statewide conference in 2017, is a trainer at Body Temple Fitness in Wallingford, Connecticut where he works to get at the underlying reason people are in poor health in addition to giving them new exercises to do. He also teaches a candlelit yoga class, which is a warm safe place where people can find peace.
Using exercise to combat fears is another thing that helps him stay well. He did an Ironman with running, biking and swimming to combat his fear of water that he had since he was a child. Zvonek was afraid to stay up overnight that the lack of sleep would trigger his mental health. So he decided to combat this by hiking 50 miles of the Appalachian Trail. At certain points in the hike, he stayed in touch with a family member by walkee talkee and completed the hike beating his fear.
“I stayed healthy through that. There is nothing I can’t do because of my mental health issue. I just have to find a way to do it safely,” he said. “Fitness builds my self-confidence. I don’t feel I have something wrong with me and I feel like a million bucks.”
Zvonek hopes to climb Mt. Washington in New Hampshire this winter and Mt. Rainier in Washington state by summer.
“I hike to inspire clients by being a power of example of a healthy active lifestyle,” he said.
At home, he has a wife and 2-year-old daughter, who encourage his fitness endeavors.
“I try different things with my clients like biking, tennis, boxing. The biggest thing is to make someone leave feeling better than they walked through the door,” he said.
Zvonek says there are bodyweight exercises that you can do from home if you don’t have access to a gym. Push-ups, sit-ups, squats and pull-ups are all good. Using a stepper or just marching in place while watching television is great too.
“I started my fitness journey walking 15 minutes on a break from work,” he said. Today, he runs, does tai chi and yoga, weight lifts three times a week, hikes, bikes in the summer, and attends an occaisional Zuumba class when his schedule allows.