“The Gym Helped Me Build Muscle and Better My Mental Health”

"The body that you want will only come from your hard work, dedication and consistency"


Chandré Davids |

For Sthembile Cebekhulu, a desire to learn how to swim turned into a passion for fitness. Using exercise as a means to help with her mental health, she pulled herself out of the darkness, found her saving grace in the gym and gained 13 kilos of muscle. Here’s how she did it…

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Sthembile Cebekhulu

City: Johannesburg

Age: 24

Occupation: Student

Weight before: 51kg

Weight after: 64kg

Time required to reach goal: 4 years

Secret weapon to your fitness journey: Persistence

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Where it all began

“I was clinically diagnosed with depression during my 1st year in university in 2014 and at that point, I had absolutely lost interest in anything and everything, having occasional suicidal thoughts”, explains Sthembile. It was around this time that she walked by the gym and noticed a swimming pool. “I went past the gym and saw that there was a swimming pool, I immediately felt the urge to go ask whether or not they give lessons”, she says.

Sthembile joined the gym with the desire to learn how to swim but the minute she stepped into the gym, she says she fell in love. “I immediately fell in love with one of the step classes that was in session, but the class was only an hour long and I wanted to spend more time at the gym so I asked one of the gym personnel how to use the equipment, and from that day fourth gym and I have been inseparable”, she explains.

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Strong Body

When Sthembile started at the gym, she would attend aerobics and step classes on a daily basis. But as her passion for fitness increased, so did her desire to try new exercises. She says that “I started going to the gym twice a day. I started by lifting light weights as I didn’t know much about using gym equipment. I couldn’t afford a personal trainer, so, I would watch all the guys lifting weights and mimic them”. As her knowledge about fitness and nutrition grew, she started changing up her routine. ” I now go to the gym four times a week, two of those four days I do a double session”, she says. Where in the beginning Sthembile focused mainly on cardio and lower body exercises, she now trains all her muscle groups. Her weekly schedule looks like this:

Monday: Leg day

Tuesday: morning session- upper body afternoon session- step class

Wednesday: spinning class

Thursday: morning session-Leg day afternoon-upper body

Friday: rest day

Saturday: tennis (cardio)

Sunday: rest day

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Abs Are Made in the Kitchen

“My eating habits have drastically changed, and that change happened in late 2016 when I started focusing on how my body looked like. I learnt more about diet as I was embarking on a journey where I wanted to gain weight so I could turn it into muscle”, she says. Sthembile consulted a nutritionist to help her gain weight the healthy way. She started using a fitness app to help track her calories, and help maintain her weight once she reached her goal weight. “I have since learned a lot on nutrition and have continued to eat a healthy balanced diet, not only for weight maintenance but also because I have observed the benefits of healthy and clean eating. It has become a lifestyle”, she explains.

Her daily meal plan usually consists of breakfast, lunch and supper, with 4 snacks in between. And during the course of the day, she makes sure to stay hydrated with water and juice. Her breakfast is usual oats with peanut butter & milk. Lunch is either a sandwich or a green leaf salad with tuna. Dinner is of a protein, like chicken or meat,  with rice or pasta, paired with vegetables and salad. When it comes to snacking, fruit, boiled eggs, nut, berries and popcorn make for good tummy fillers. 

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The only time I really work on my back … #Fitlife #gymthings #Girlsthatlift #Fitfam #fridayhumpday

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Strong mind

The gym proved to be more than just great for Sthembile’s physical health, it was doing wonders for her mental health too.  “The gym became my happy place. I started going to the gym twice a day as I found being in that environment took my mind off many of my toxic thoughts”. Sthembile says that while depression cannot be cured, fitness has become one of her mechanisms for suppressing the negative thoughts. ” From being that unhappy girl who saw the world as black and white, fitness has opened my world and I now see it in colour, my world is colourful”, she explains.

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Sthembile’s Tips

Focus on yourself: “everyone’s fitness journey is different and so are their results. Comparison is the biggest killer of joy, and as much as we can look to others for motivation, it is important to stay focused on yourself always”

Make it fun: “The only way you can remain consistent is if you enjoy what you’re doing, so find a way of exercising that makes you happy”.

Set goals and stick to them: “Start by setting yearly goals, then narrow them down to monthly goals, and then weekly goals. This will keep you disciplined and achieving weekly goals will always move you closer to achieving your ultimate body goals”.

Treat yo’self: “Always reward yourself for goals achieved, even if it’s a small cheat meal. This will keep you motivated and help you in remaining focused”.

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