An epidemiologist, René Najera worked long hours this past year and often witnessed traumatic events like seeing people pass away from COVID-19. As he formed an exercise routine during the pandemic, the deeper relationships he formed with others – particularly his daughter – served as a kind of therapy for him.
"As I'm running more, I feel just like I could do anything she needs me to," Najera says. "And that's part of the connectedness with her...I can feel where she is and be able to be there in a flash if she needs me."
When Najera took his current job in late 2019, he was hired to work in mental health and substance abuse epidemiology. That meant studying difficult topics like opioid epidemic suicides. When the pandemic hit a few months later, Najera says his mental and emotional health was pushed to the edge.
"You're working 18 hours a day, you're not getting enough sleep, you're cranky," Najera says. "You know your daughter sees, and your wife sees as well."
That's when Najera decided to buy a bicycle and began riding around town with his daughter attached to a trailer on the back. He says moving more improved his overall mental health, but it also helped him feel closer to his family because he could live a longer, fuller life with them.
"I'm just visualizing myself with my little girl with being able to pick her up, being able to chase her around if she picks up a sport later on," Najera says. "And then with my wife, just asking myself, ‘What are we going to be doing for the years? What countries are we going to visit? What mountains are we going to climb?’"
In addition to cycling, Najera also says he learned how to swim, something he had never done before.
"I remember getting water in my nose and coughing it out, and you know, kicking and trying to grab onto the side of the pool," Najera says.
But for him, the challenge was part of the fun of learning to exercise. Now, when he's at the pool, he watches other people swimming and tries to keep up. In this way, even solitary sports like swimming become about the people Najera is working out with. The same goes for running but in a different way. Instead of exercising alongside other people, Najera explains that he uses the loss of people's lives he's witnessed in the past year as motivation to keep going.
"Like, I think about how I saw the people on the ventilators, who had no option but to live in a crowded household," he says. "So I get a little bit angry, and just my next 100 breaths are for them."
And while he understands that some people might consider that kind of motivation to be morbid, Najera says that reflecting on challenging events like the past year is important to moving forward.
"That's what moves us. Right? That's what motivates us," he says.
"I need to do it not only for myself but for the people that I love."
"And when I say the people that I love, I don't mean just my family….My profession is about the people. And so I need to do my job with love, and I need to do my job with caring for everybody. And that's why I do it. Because if I'm okay, then I get to make a lot of people okay."