Photo Credit: U of T women’s varsity lacrosse blog spot
St. Mike’s Breanna Veneruz on mental health, body image, and academic success
Hannah Mercer, The Mike Contributor
Breanna Veneruz is a fourth year St. Mike’s student majoring in Human Biology and minoring in Psychology and Italian. Breanna is also a close friend of mine, and I think that her story can inspire students to balance their academic life with movement and fun.
Breanna has played hockey from ages 8 to 18 in her hometown of Thunder Bay, Ontario. She has expressed her love for playing sports and practicing with a team as they work towards a common goal. Breanna has explained that she “never had to worry about getting exercise” when she played hockey growing up. “It was already provided for me…it was there.” It was a part of a familiar routine. Breanna has reflected on the comradery of her hockey experience, she tells The Mike that she “really enjoyed spending time with other girls in that sport setting; that team setting that I loved.”
But as she progressed through her first year at the University of Toronto (U of T) without playing a team sport, Breanna noticed a difference in herself. “Reflecting on my year I said, wow, this is probably the worst year I’ve experienced…I was crying because of grades, feeling sorry for myself not being the perky, happy self that I normally was,” she recalled.
Breanna knew she needed to shake things up. “This year it became evident that I am not a person, who can just be a gym rat…I need to enjoy what I’m doing,” she said.
Luckily, Breanna met a girl in residence that encouraged her to try out for the lacrosse team. “Should I try intramurals first?” Breanna asked her friend. Knowing Breanna’s experience in athletics, Breanna’s friend pushed her to try the varsity level. Breanna wasn’t a lacrosse player, but the coach encouraged her to give it a go. “I have a little experience with box lacrosse. The stick skills are similar, and I can adapt to it,” Breanna said. Lacrosse was “a less super competitive sport,” to Breanna, and she was delighted to be accepted to “a team that was accepting of new people.” After trying out during her first semester of second year and making the lacrosse team, Breanna was back in the game.
The women’s varsity lacrosse team practiced Tuesday through Friday for 2 hours each day with games on the weekends. “The first season of Lacrosse was a bit of a transition back to a crazy busy schedule,” Breanna admits. “Initially I didn’t see a crazy improvement in my grades, but I saw an improvement in my health. I felt physically way better…I felt more in the present. I was more social with people, and I found a group that I really clicked with,” she said.
With scheduled practices and games each week, Breanna was refreshed by her new routine. “It really held me accountable to keep myself structured and not go into the Netflix cycle;” a cycle with which we are all quite familiar. “It was my stress release. It felt like a huge thing to find something in my life where I did not have plaguing thoughts of school and doing bad…I had a set time where I literally did not think about school, and I was not thinking of the stress of my upcoming assignments. It’s really hard to have mental clarity when you’re thinking about all those impending things going on. It’s really hard to separate yourself from that…and finally I was able to clear my mind, and just have fun. Just laugh.”
Even during the off-season, Breanna was supported by her teammates to keep moving. “After my first season of lacrosse we still did training and lifts together. My teammates would say: ‘Hey, we’re going at 7 a.m. tomorrow’…and 7 a.m. is not something I can do on my own.” Though they were off the field, Breanna appreciated “still having that schedule…and it 100% started translating,” she noticed.
“You can literally see it in my transcript, when I started doing it. It 100% helped my mental health, it just made me a healthier, happier person. Then, it started translating to eating healthier…it made me realize that I am not eating enough for the amount of activity I’m doing now. It made me understand what my nutritional needs were. I had way less cravings for stress-related foods. I remember in first year I’d constantly be going to 7/11 on a Friday night, because I’d be stressed and upset, and I went and got a bag of ketchup chips to watch a movie with. That was my little reward.” As tasty as they are, Breanna’s rewards today are much longer lasting.
Many of us feel compelled to maintain physical health through workout regimes we see in the media. Between Instagram fitness influencers and magazine spreads of flawless models, it’s common for women to feel pressure to obtain a certain physique. Performing 100 crunches, 50 squats, and 86 lunches in the corner of your bedroom every morning may look feasible from the guise of social media, but for most of us it’s absolutely intolerable.
Exercising is certainly key to a balanced lifestyle, but Breanna reminds us that it’s critical to find an activity that you genuinely enjoy. Rediscovering her love for sport through varsity lacrosse “rejuvenated me,” as Breanna puts it. She began seeing her “body as a means for accomplishment…like, look what I can do! Look what my body can do!” she enthused. Her desire for weight loss transformed into enthusiasm to become stronger. “It made me have a better relationship with my body because I was not punishing myself for the weight that I wanted to be but celebrating it for what it could do,” Breanna tells The Mike.
I asked Breanna how a student may get involved in team sports with no experience. “Intramurals are a great way to introduce that…we took people on our intramural lacrosse that had no idea how to play lacrosse. The varsity girls would just assist.” There are a variety of intramural sports at U of T that welcome students at all levels of experience.
Though functioning of team sports is limited during the pandemic, it’s still possible to exercise as a member of a group. Walking, jogging, or cycling with friends and family can be really beneficial. If it’s a chilly day, Hart House online fitness classes are free for students, with programs such as boot camp, Zumba, and yogalates. While we are glued to our screens as online students, it’s important now more than ever to move. Breanna said, “there’d be times when you’re studying and your body is saying, I can’t do this anymore. You can’t physically study anymore. Even if I sat down and watched a Netflix show for 45 minutes I went back and said, I still can’t do this anymore!” But with activity breaks here and there, “you come back and you’re ready to go,” she said.
To students during the pandemic: I encourage you to keep chugging along with movement, academics, and fun. Keep your expectations of yourself reasonable so that you may be able to secure a healthy balance. From her adventure through Varsity Lacrosse, Breanna reflected: “I became less of a person that was dwelling on the past but moving forward instead. It felt good!”