Aly Raisman talks fighting self-doubt and working out for 'peace between the ears'

Erin Donnelly
·13 min read
Aly Raisman discusses the role fitness plays in her mental health and how she's learned to stand up for herself. (Photo: Getty Images; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Aly Raisman discusses the role fitness plays in her mental health and how she's learned to stand up for herself. (Photo: Getty Images; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

The Unwind is Yahoo Life’s well-being series in which experts, influencers and celebrities share their approaches to wellness and mental health, from self-care rituals to setting healthy boundaries to the mantras that keep them afloat.

Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman may have retired from the sport last year, but fitness is still very much an important part of the 26-year-old's life. In addition to collaborating with Aerie on activewear, she's also teaming up with the plant-based beverage brand Silk for a new series of at-home workouts celebrating the launch of their high-protein drink, Silk Ultra. Raisman says the Silk Ultra Upgrade series — in which viewers can potentially win gym essentials to further boost their fitness game — will allow her to use her own athletic expertise to empower others.

"During the pandemic, it's been such a difficult time for so many people, and I think for a lot of people, it can be hard to find a motivation to work out," Raisman tells Yahoo Life of the program, in which she and fellow Olympian Michael Phelps guide users through their personal all-star sweat sessions. "I'm really excited to help people get creative with their workout. Some of these exercises that I did in the video were really instrumental to my gymnastics success, and things that I did pretty much every single day when I was training."

Staying active, and prioritizing her mental health, looks a lot different these days now that she's no longer competing. Here, Raisman opens up about giving her workouts a more positive spin, being a friend to herself and working through the trauma of the abuse and self-doubt she battled as a young gymnast.

Related: Aly Raisman is using quarantine to embrace a workout routine

What role does fitness play now that you're retired?

You could see some people [who have retired] just don't want to work out. I feel like when I finished competing, I was really just wanting to take a break from doing intense workouts. And I think for so much of my gymnastics career, it was such intense workouts and I would leave the gym feeling completely drained and exhausted. And if I didn't leave completely depleted — almost to the point where, like, my muscles were cramping up — I was so brainwashed to think that I didn't do enough. And so I've really worked on shifting that mentality. No matter what I'm doing, whether it's doing like 10 reps of something or 30 reps of something, whatever feels right for me that day is great.

And that was not how I was when I was training, because it was so competitive and it was so intense. So I've definitely gone through a different journey in how I feel working out. But now that I've kind of changed my mentality and I've really worked on that relationship to working out and that's still a process, but I really just tried to find what works for me. I used to feel like in order to get a good workout in, I'd have to do a lot of cardio, but that really made me feel really nauseous. It would give me a headache. It would make me feel so tired. Like, after running for a little bit, I felt like I needed a nap and I was still trying to do it because I thought that's what I'm supposed to do... I just finally realized that working out isn't one-size-fits-all and I have to do what works for me.

Everyone's body is so different. I do some of the tightening exercises I did when I was training. I definitely do more Pilates-type workouts because I feel like that works better for me. And it actually helps me leave the gym feeling more like myself, more energized. Someone said to me, "You want to work out for peace between the ears." And I love that. I don't want to leave the gym feeling completely depleted and exhausted. I just want to leave feeling like myself and feeling good and feeling calm. And so that's really what I'm most excited about, working on that for myself.

Hopefully, people that are able to do the [Silk Ultra Upgrade] workout video, they feel no pressure. They do whatever works for them. We didn't give a certain amount of reps for people to do, because I understand that everyone's in different places on their journeys, and everyone's dealing with different things. And, you know, even someone who's struggling with mental health issues, which I know so many people are right now, myself included. I think so many people are. Some days the anxiety and depression is so dark, but some days you might just be able to do a couple of reps of each workout exercise and other days you might be able to do more. And I think it's just so important to be kind to yourself, to meet yourself where you're at. And so that's what I try to focus on now. You know, some days I just go for a walk outside. Other days, I'm able to do more abs or more tightening exercises. But I really just try to work out for me and not work out because I read something online that says I should do cardio. I've really tried to focus on how I feel.

You often document on Instagram things that you're doing for your mental health, like gardening or spending time with your rescue dog. What are some of the other ways that help you practice self-care or find peace?

There's a lot of different things that I do. What I've found is something might work for me for a few months and then I might need to change it up. What I'm really working on right now is working on myself and being there for myself, as if a friend was being there for me or as if I was there for a friend. So working on being there for myself and not relying on other people to help make me feel better. That's something that definitely takes a lot of time. I've found writing in a journal is very helpful for me. I try to remember to say a few things I'm grateful for in the morning.

Spending time with my dog, Milo, has been really awesome. It's really funny because if I'm on my phone and he is next to me, he'll start crying because he wants my attention and I actually really like it because it's a really great reminder sometimes when he's waiting for me to give him attention, I'm like, "Oh yeah. Why am I on my phone?" Sometimes I'm just being mindless on my phone, which I think a lot of people can relate to. I've really tried to not be on my phone very much if I'm able to be with other people — obviously, it's difficult during the pandemic — so I try to put my phone in the other room. I found that my phone is a big source of anxiety for me, so I'm just trying to be connected with the people that I'm with, or Milo, or whether I'm reading a book, just trying to be present. It's the same thing when I'm working out. I tried to put my phone on airplane mode and I noticed I'm thinking, "Oh, I forgot to answer this email, or I forgot to text this person back or to call this person back." If I'm not really present, I actually start texting them during my workout. And I really had to work on making my workout my me time and creating those spaces where you actually have time away from your phone. I feel like it can be so easy to pick up your phone and just scroll through things without even really realizing how much time has gone by. That's been really helpful.

I love gardening. That's been very healing for me and therapeutic and is something I really enjoy doing. Just trying to go outside, go for a walk is really nice. And just trying to pay attention to my body... In the workout video, I actually do a body scan and that's been really helpful for working out or just figuring out how I'm feeling, and just being able to reflect. I've noticed when I'm really stressed out, I feel more tension in my jaw. I get headaches more. Even the top of my scalp is very sensitive when I'm really stressed, my legs feel really tired. So when I'm feeling like my body's really exhausted and I haven't worked out more, I know that it's because I'm more stressed. So it's trying to think of little things that I can do to prevent getting to that point where I'm so stressed out in my body and I start to feel it.

Raisman competing at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. (Photo: REUTERS/Dylan Martinez)
Raisman competing at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. (Photo: REUTERS/Dylan Martinez)

You've been so vocal about your own mental health and everything that you've gone through with the USA Gymnastics abuse scandal. How do you work through that on a daily basis? Do you have boundaries that you set for yourself to tune out any negative thought processes or any other coping techniques?

I really struggle with setting boundaries for myself and speaking up and communicating. And so I've been working on that lately and it's been kind of scary when you're not used to setting boundaries. I think when I was younger, [dealing with] that kind of power dynamic between the coach and the athlete, I didn't feel comfortable speaking up and I didn't feel like I had a voice and I didn't really process that I had a voice, and a lot of my self-worth was from my results or how the judges or coaches around me thought I was doing. And so I feel like it's a constant process of working on myself to trust myself and not relying on other people to help me feel better and just feeling like it's safe to communicate something that I'm not comfortable with or something that I feel like I want differently. Or if someone says something that really offends me, just being honest about it. And it's still very hard for me, but I'm working on it.

Our inner dialogue is so important. But some days, I definitely have to check myself because some days I'm harder on myself, but I feel like I'm much more aware now. Instead of being really hard on myself and not even realizing it, I am able to kind of be aware of it and try and do the work on it. Sometimes even from writing in a journal, I'll kind of vent out and then I'll reread it and respond as if I am giving a friend advice. And I realized I'm so much meaner to myself than I would ever be to a friend, and I would respond to a friend out of a lot of love and kindness — and that's not always how I talk to myself. So I'm definitely feeling a lot more aware. I'm just trying to break that habit, but it takes a lot of time.

And just because someone said something that made me feel very self-conscious years ago, it doesn't mean that that's true. I think so many people can probably relate to if you're bullied or not treated well, it's easy to go through life feeling like what they said is the truth and that everyone feels that way about you, when in reality it might be one person or a few people. For everyone it's very different, but I really had to question those beliefs that I have. And just because someone says something about the way that I look or the way that I talk or whatever, it doesn't mean that it's true. And so I'm just working on that, but it takes a lot of time and it's definitely easier said than done.

It's been in the news that your friend and former teammate Simone Biles said that she wouldn't be comfortable having her daughter compete in USA Gymnastics after the way that everything was handled. Do you feel the same way?

I saw the 60 Minutes interview and I thought she did such a great job. It was just so awesome to watch her. She looks really happy and really confident, and I know she's working so hard, so I support her so much. And it was also, like, really heartbreaking at the same time watching her and her mom and her family talk about the abuse.

To be honest, because I'm not even close to being a mom, I haven't thought about [keeping a daughter out of gymnastics] that much ... Gymnastics has been such an incredible sport for me, and I've made so many amazing friends. But it's also created a lot of issues that I'm still struggling with today. And I still struggle with a lot of PTSD and trauma. And I would have to say, I agree with her at this point.

Hopefully, things will change. I think there's certain gyms that are more about fun and it's not so much pressure. So if there was a gym that was really fun and it wasn't about being number one, I think I would feel differently about it, but right now there's still not proper education for the athletes and the staff. There's not enough prevention and the organizations haven't done enough. We still don't even know what happened. There hasn't been an independent investigation, so it's really disappointing. And you know, when I talk about mental health, it's so important to recognize that our healing is impacted by the way our abuse has been handled, and it's been handled horribly. So that's why [I] and so many other survivors are still struggling because this thing has been dragging out for way too long.

You know, even me watching the 60 Minutes episode, and I want to support Simone because she's my friend, but it's really triggering. It's really hard to watch her mom cry about, you know, having her daughter be abused. It's really triggering seeing his face. So it's always a balance, but I don't think people understand. It's like you try to move on and try to do other things, but then it's still coming back around because they still haven't taken accountability. So they're really preventing people from being able to heal because it's still in the news. It's hard to get away from. And it's still the fear that it could happen again. And then it could happen to other young kids.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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