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Nov. 13, 2005, was the loneliest day of my life. Two months earlier, in the midst of a mild existential crisis, I packed an oversized suitcase with clothes and books and moved as far away from my hometown of Ajax, Ont., as I could imagine, to an unremarkable industrial city in southern China called Nanchang where I had somehow landed a job teaching English at a small private school. On this particular day, my 26th birthday, I was regretting the decision.

Nanchang isn't one of those cosmopolitan Asian cities like Beijing or Hong Kong, where travellers and locals rub shoulders and English is commonly spoken. My suburban whiteness was very much conspicuous. My presence in a store or restaurant would lead to stares and laughter, and just about every sign I encountered was either written in traditional Chinese or was a hilarious misinterpretation of English. Days would pass without me even saying a word. The initial excitement of this adventure had morphed into a constant sort of terror, the crippling effects of which culminated on my birthday, a day I spent trudging slowly over rain-soaked streets in a hooded army jacket, alone and miserable.

Compounding this misery was the fact that I hadn't worked out in weeks. In times of stress, I've always had a physical outlet, but here, for whatever reason, I'd let my training slide. I tried to develop a body-weight routine that I could perform in my apartment, but that only added to my isolation, making me feel like a convict training in his cell. Despite my penchant for paraphrasing Morrissey lyrics and turning down party invitations, I really do like people. I knew what I needed, and what I needed wasn't more Me Time. What I needed was a gym filled with weights and people.

Loneliness has been big news lately. Studies have shown that social isolation can lead to a wide range of debilitating illnesses, from cardiovascular disease and cancer to depression and dementia. The British government has taken note; earlier this year they appointed an official Minister for Loneliness to address the issue.

In his book Religion for Atheists, the philosopher Alain de Botton argues the antidote to the scourge of loneliness is for modern society to adopt the welcoming, community-centred spirit that defines most places of worship. So, for those lonesome people who are unwilling or able to accept Christ/Buddha/Allah/Vishnu as their saviour, may I offer a suggestion?

Join a running club. Join a bird-watching group. Do something – anything – that forces you to be around like-minded individuals in a healthy environment.

In my never-ending battle against depression and loneliness, gyms have always been my weapon of choice. I'm not much of a social lifter – I'm that guy with the earbuds and the blank face who prefers to mutter to himself between sets rather than engage with others – but I do draw positive energy from the people around me.

There's a connection serious lifters share, spoken or not. When I see someone crush a set of squats with three plates on the bar, I assume we have more than a few things in common (even if my own strength is nowhere near as great). I assume we both appreciate the value of hard work, discipline and consistency; I assume we share an appreciation of the long game, that we're not the types who seek instant gratification or quick fixes but take pleasure in the day-by-day grind that is working out.

I see a similar sort of bonding happen every day at my job. There are the same early risers who wait for me to open the gym Tuesday mornings, laughing it up outside the doors at 5 a.m., even in the dead of winter. There's the group of senior gentlemen who playfully argue about politics as they make their way through a training circuit. Who's to say how lonely any of these people are? But I suspect their commitment to physical health also works wonders for their mental well-being.

Back in Nanchang, when I learned about a fancy big-box gym not too far from the school where I worked, I returned the next day with a colleague/translator and signed up for a membership on the spot. It took a couple of weeks to integrate myself into the social structure of the weight room, but once I proved my competence, the resident alphas accepted me into the tribe. Living in a foreign country with a language as impenetrable as Mandarin, this sort of non-verbal camaraderie saved my sanity.

I've been thinking about my time in China a lot these days. When news came out earlier this year about Britain's Minister for Loneliness appointment, my mind wandered back to that terrible day in November and how desperate I was for human interaction. If I didn't find that gym, chances are I never would have stayed for the full year I had committed to. I would have bailed some time before Christmas, tail tucked between my legs, and I would have missed out on what ended up being the most fulfilling experience of my life.

Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator at the Toronto West End College Street YMCA.

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