When Jill May was accepted to be part of the NBC competition reality TV show, “Strong,” she envisioned a pleasant little fitness retreat at a California ranch.
Instead, it was a grueling challenge that taxed her physically, emotionally and spiritually.
But May went on to win the competition, and it was an experience that transformed her.
May (whose maiden name is Pederson) grew up in Zimmerman and graduated from Elk River High School in 1998. She’s now living in Willmar and married to Dan May, who is a pastor. They have four kids ranging in age from 9 to 15.
Going on the show and winning the competition was very much an exciting mountaintop experience, May said. But what people didn’t see is the year leading up to that where May said she battled depression and anxiety.
“I was in, like, the lowest point of my life,” she said.
A natural athlete who played college basketball, May said as her family grew, she neglected her own self-care and health. But “Strong” changed all that.
May spoke Saturday at the Thumbs Up High 5K in Elk River, which raises money to promote mental health awareness and suicide prevention.
In a phone interview Monday, May said she has learned how to manage depression by addressing three different areas: mind, body and soul.
May said the mind aspect required her to begin to accept who she was designed to be. A key moment was when her trainer on “Strong” told her that she was an aggressive person.
“It was an eye-opener for me,” she said. “He just pinpointed something that I’ve always known but I’ve never been able to accept or feel that it was OK. It’s hard sometimes to accept ourselves in certain areas. That’s a big part of the journey, is learning to accept ourselves.”
Regarding the body aspect, May said research has shown that exercise releases endorphins — the brain’s “feel-good” chemicals. Eating properly is also important, she said.
As for the soul, May believes human beings are designed by God.
“He is my creator and he made me for a purpose here on Earth. As long as I still have breath, my purpose is still being played out,” she said.
In a nutshell, May said at “Strong,” she learned to take care of herself.
“You pour your life into everyone else and sometimes self-care goes on the back burner,” she said. “We almost think of it as a selfish thing to care for ourselves, but the reality is, if we don’t do that, there’s going to be a cost.”
May wants to help others be their best
“Strong” debuted in April. Sylvester Stallone was one of the show’s producers and May got to meet him and shake his hand.
The show featured 20 contestants — 10 male trainers and 10 female trainees. May was paired with Bennie Wylie, a former college football player who later became a strength and conditioning coach in the NFL. May, Wylie and the other teams spent nine weeks at a ranch in Malibu, California.
“‘Strong’ was the most grueling experience I have ever been through, and I went through childbirth,” May said. “I can’t decide which one was harder.”
The focus of the show was on being healthy, fit and strong, not on being skinny. May’s body fat dropped from 31 percent to 12 percent and her resting heart rate from 84 to 55.
The “Strong” experience has launched her into her passion in life, to inspire people to be the best they can be, she said.
May is taking the principles she learned from “Strong” and teaching them to others through a new health coaching business and motivational speaking. She also is planning fitness retreats for the new year.
As she looks back on her TV debut, May said “Strong” involved much more than getting fit physically, and that came as a surprise.
“I wasn’t expecting a major life transformation,” she said.