Fitness instructors have historically been viewed as beacons of physical health. So it might be a bit unconventional to view them as a prolific voice in the mental health conversation as well. Peloton Instructor Kendall Toole has always been a mental health advocate after her own personal struggles and triumphs. As a boxing, cycling and strength instructor, she speaks very openly and passionately about her journey di lei, leading one of Peloton’s most popular rides of 2021-a dedicated Mental Health Week ride taken by 101,000 members.
She is also an ambassador for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), an organization that offers resources to those who might be struggling. Her goal di lei is to continue the momentum of the mental health conversations that have bubbled up over the past few years and help to destigmatize the topic for society at large.
I spoke to Kendall just as she released this year’s Mental Health Awareness Month class – a shadow boxing workout that nods to her own physical and mental wellness journey.
Amy Shoenthal: Tell me about your path to becoming a fitness instructor.
Kendall Toole: It was delightfully unplanned. I always wanted to empower people through storytelling. I fell in love with movies and storytelling at a young age and I even did some acting. I was also a gymnast. I loved the cinematic floor routines of gymnastics and dance.
I went to college at USC and got into their film and business program. One of my mentors was a film director who owned a boxing gym. He said, ‘you’re intense,’ and invited me to come learn how to box. That was a compliment, by the way.
Being in a boxing gym was this incredible moment to, pun unintended, step into the ring of understanding a different side of myself. I was always a high performer. I graduated high school in three years. I was a cheerleader at USC, acing midterms and getting all A’s. But behind the scenes I was really struggling with my mental health. I had two very different energies coexisting.
The boxing ring was one place where I didn’t overthink. I felt strong and powerful there. For once, I wasn’t obligated to partake in any sort of hyper feminine role and I could just appreciate my intensity.
Shoenthal: You speak so candidly about mental health awareness. I’d love to hear about your own mental health journey, whatever parts you’re comfortable sharing and what led you to become such a strong advocate around this issue.
Toole: My senior year of college was when I went through a very dark mental health period. I was at the point where I was contemplating suicide.
At that moment, I had an out of body experience, sort of like in “It’s A Wonderful Life.” I saw how my decision would affect the people I loved the most, especially my parents and my brother. And then, I looked at my phone. My mom had just called me 15 times. That motherly instinct? It is so real. Even that instinct with the people you love – if you feel like something’s off, always reach out. Always trust your gut. We are far more connected than we realize.
I picked up the 15th or 16th call, bawling, and asked her to come pick me up. I do not remember the next three months at all. I refused to get out of bed. My parents were very concerned and considered making me go to an inpatient facility.
I grew up with a father who started out by sweeping the floor at a Kimberly Clark factory and worked his way up to a C suite role in tech. Seeing his dedication of him and his willingness of him to always learn more and how he supported the people who worked for him gave me such an affinity for his integrity di lui as a leader. So when he came up to my room and said, ‘Listen, I know this is tough. I know this is knocking you down, but we will not be knocked out by this. ‘ That is a family motto now. And as you know, that’s how I end all my classes.
I underwent three months of intense therapy, multiple times a week before I was able to move forward. I moved into a new space. I still graduated on time.
After college, I got a job at a tech startup that had a very toxic culture. I got out of there just as my old mentor, my boxing trainer, was starting a boxing fitness studio in West Hollywood. At this point, I had $ 200,000 worth of debt from USC, I had just lost my cool tech job, and I had to move back in with my parents. Talk about a kick to the ego, and just as I was finally feeling better about my mental health.
I started teaching boxing classes to regain some semblance of pride and to be able to pay my parents a little bit of rent while I lived at home with them.
The owners of another well known boxing studio approached me after taking one of my classes, asking if I would consider auditioning to be a founding trainer at a new studio they were about to open, but I would have to go to New York to train for three months. When they said, ‘We’ll pay for you to live in New York for three months and train,’ I immediately said yes. Three months turned into six months as we were waiting for the LA studio to open.
That’s when I got a DM slide from Rebecca Kennedy. We talked on the phone for an hour, and then I connected with Cody. They were cheering me on from day one. I started taking trips to the Peloton showroom, which is when I realized there was more to this community than just a bike in your home. It felt like a really friendly, magical group of friends.
After my Peloton audition, I knew I got the job. I felt it. It was the cameras I grew up with, the storytelling I loved, teaching people fitness – everything came together in that moment.
Once I accepted the offer, I moved to New York for good, and six months later Covid happened.
Shoenthal: When the pandemic hit, Peloton was one of the places people turned for a break in their day, for movement, for connection. How did that impact you?
Toole: I’m deeply grateful that at a time when movement was not easy to do, community was not easy to build and connection was at an all time low, we showed people a way to gain all of that. It worked both ways – I would not have done very well if I didn’t have the responsibility I did to show up for you. You all helped me get through it.
We were like, ‘I know I’m not ok, I know you’re not ok, but we’re going to find fun and motivation together.’ The coolest thing was realizing I could show up authentically as myself, be completely welcomed and have that connection to other people.
That’s why I felt called to do the mental health awareness rides. We needed it. I talked so openly about my mental health diagnosis, my anxiety and depression. It was amazing how many people started talking once I opened up about it. There were so many Peloton Dads who said as men they didn’t feel able to talk to anyone about this. I would get dms from moms with 11 year olds with OCD type behavior asking me if I had any advice as someone who had experience with that.
It’s incredible how we’re starting to have more conversations. We’re just scratching the surface of something so much bigger.
Shoenthal: You’ve been a huge part of helping everyone have that conversation.
Toole: We have to start the conversation with ourselves. Then we bring it to our homes, our families, and then it trickles into the workplace. Then it moves into education, which gets into society as a norm.
My darkest mental health moment is why I speak the way I do today. I really connect with the imagery of lightning bolts. You have to have that storm, you have to have that darkness. You need that shadow part of yourself to be able to recognize the light.
Shoenthal: As you become more of a prolific voice and more of a leader, the stakes get higher, and things can easily get overwhelming. How do you make time to nourish your own mental health when you have so much going on in your personal and work life?
The first thing I want everyone to know is that what I have gone through, I am still going through. I hope we start to acknowledge there’s always more to the story, more than what you see in a ten second TikTok video.
The higher you go, the higher the pressure. Everyone I’ve met who is a leader in their industry says they feel the pressure of the hundreds of thousands of people they are accountable to.
I rely on a certain set of practices, rituals and habits that help ground me. I write in a gratitude journal every morning. Before I put my feet out of bed, I journal. That always sets the tone for the day. Another tool I have is breathwork. And of course, there’s movement. For me, that’s boxing. I’ve learned not to quell my intensity but to honor it.
I find a lot of women afraid of their own power. I know I was for a very long period of my life. By stepping into my intensity, by meeting my darkness, by meeting those shadows, I’ve found that I’m actually much calmer, much kinder, much more rooted in myself. I know I have the ability to destroy, but I also know how much power I have to create.
Shoenthal: You sound like a superhero.
Toole: Women are, though! Human beings are in general. There’s a lot of things in this world that need to be ripped apart and rebuilt right now. Sometimes you need to go Godzilla on it.
There’s a Japanese concept of fixing broken things called Kintsugi. Something breaks, you fill the cracks with gold, and it looks even more beautiful than before.
Shoenthal: Are you doing a mental health awareness month ride this year? The people need to know so we can set up boxes of tissues next to our bikes.
Toole: This year is a little bit different because we wanted to give everybody an opportunity, especially globally. We have a full court press and lots of programming from different instructors. I will not be doing a ride, but I do have a 30 minute mental health shadow boxing class. There will be an upcoming mental health awareness ride, just not this month, but stay tuned. I’m excited for what we have planned.