'Wicked' star Cynthia Erivo on how exercise impacts her mental health: 'Fitness is self-care'

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Cynthia Erivo talks fitness and mental health. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Cynthia Erivo talks fitness and mental health. (Photo: Getty; 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.

Cynthia Erivo knows what it means to be an elite performer. The singer and actress, who first exploded onto the theater scene a decade ago, is now just one award shy of the elusive “EGOT.” On the big screen, the Widows star portrayed abolitionist Harriet Tubman in Harriet (she and Joshuah Brian Campbell also wrote the film’s Oscar-nominated track “Stand Up”) while on television, she used her big voice to star as music icon Aretha Franklin in National Geographic’s Genius. Next up? Joining Ariana Grande in the highly anticipated movie musical version of Broadway’s Wicked, in which Erivo will go green to play Elphaba, the soon-to-be gravity-defying Wicked Witch of the West.

Yet Erivo couldn’t do it all if not for maintaining her own well-being first, a big part of which includes her daily exercise routine. In fact, the star is so passionate about working out that she is now a minority owner in OMORPHO, an innovative sportswear company that just released its new line called Gravity Sportswear. (Quite appropriate, given her Wicked future.) The products feature weights built into the clothing, providing a challenge to performers who want to get the most out of their workout — without sacrificing style.

Erivo spoke to Yahoo Life about how exercise is her self-care, how she stayed in touch with her loved ones during the pandemic and how she’s made her slice of social media a more positive place.

How does your fitness routine impact your mental health?

I need to do something every day. I started doing long-distance running when I was doing a show, because the show was very heavy, and it allowed me to compartmentalize. Running is a way I can zen out, so to speak. It allows me to process. Scientifically, it releases endorphins. When you finish working out, you feel better and happier. I think I’m addicted to that feeling.

Why did you want to become a part owner of OMORPHO?

In addition to the ethos behind how OMORPHO thinks about working out, I also like how their clothing looks and feels. When you put on these pieces, you know your workout is more effective, but you also know you look really stylish. The brand is fashion-forward and thoughtful in terms of the shape and the colors. I also knew that I wanted something that didn’t feel so abrasive or intense. All of these clothes have weights in them, because they’re dispersed throughout the clothes, but you wouldn’t know until you take them off.

Cynthia Erivo poses in OMORPHO's new line. (Photo: Courtesy of OMORPHO)
Cynthia Erivo poses in OMORPHO's new line. (Photo: Courtesy of OMORPHO)

What is your favorite form of self-care?

For me, fitness is self-care. It means a half an hour minimum, to an hour and a half daily, where my phone is off. I’m concentrating on my breathing and how my body feels. I also want the food that I put in my body to serve me, and make me feel well.

Then there are days where you need a little bit more, like a hot bath or taking a walk before work, because you need to get some air. Self-care, to me, is whatever makes you feel good in the moment.

How does social media impact your mental health?

I sort of decided that I was going to make social media what I wanted. I try to share the most positive things I can. I use my social media to amplify other people’s endeavors. I’m always talking about new designers, new artists. I feel like that’s how I can put good into the internet. I don’t live by social media — I live my life outside of it. It doesn’t necessarily affect my mood as much as it used to.

How did you maintain your personal relationships while social distancing during the pandemic?

My sister lives in London and I live in L.A., and the only way we could communicate was FaceTime or calling. We found a site to watch films together. We would work out together. It was just about finding time for each other. If you’re on a Peloton, you can work out with someone over video. It was about finding ways to be together when you weren’t in the same place.

I was working through the pandemic quite a bit. The strangest thing I was experiencing was renegotiating how I work, when what I do is a creative and communal thing. It’s hard to sing into a Zoom screen. It’s hard to write a song when your collaborator is in their house across the world. The beauty of it is that somehow, we are able to make it work. If they had to come to meet me, it would cost a lot and take a lot more time. But, the hardest thing was finding out how to continue working digitally, when you’re used to doing things live.

What empowers you to take care of your body and mind?

I like who I am, and I want to keep feeding that person. I can’t create the way I want to create if I’m not taking care of myself. I can’t make the music I want to make. I can’t be on set for long hours. I can’t sing songs on stage. It’s about everything, from the work I do — which I love and put my whole self into — to the people I care about and who I work for.

What advice would you give people who want to start working out, but don’t know where to start, or feel intimidated by the gym?

You don’t need the gym to start working out. It can be as simple as taking a walk down the street. If you’ve never walked, if you’ve never run, that is a workout. If you walk every day for 20 minutes, that’s a workout. If you want to start running, start for two minutes. It’s a longer time than people think. You don’t need to run a 5K to work out.

I think the intimidating thing is how far it feels to get to the point where you are “perfect.” You never get perfect when working out — the bar just keeps moving.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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