Dawn Sabourin used to spend most of her days alone—until she discovered her passion for group workout classes.

By Allie Strickler
August 07, 2019
Dawn Sabourin

There was a point in Dawn Sabourin's life when the only thing in her fridge was a gallon of water she'd barely touched for a year. The majority of her time was spent alone in bed.

For nearly a decade, Sabourin battled PTSD and severe depression, which left her unmotivated to eat, move, socialize, and truly take care of herself. "I had let myself go to such a degree that just taking my dog outside fatigued my muscles to the point that I couldn't function," she tells Shape.

The thing that finally got her out of this dangerous funk might surprise you: It was group fitness classes. (Related: How I Became a Group Fitness Instructor at a Top Gym)

Finding a Community In Fitness

Sabourin discovered her passion for group exercise after participating in Shape's Crush Your Goals Challenge, a 40-day program designed and led by fitness guru Jen Widerstrom that's meant to work with any and all goals you might have, be it weight loss, improved energy, a race, or, for someone like Sabourin, a way to turn things around and just get moving.

Sabourin admits that joining the challenge was a "lofty goal" after spending so many years battling her issues alone. But, she says, she just knew something had to change to get her life back on track.

"My goals for [the challenge] were to address all my medical issues so that maybe I could get to working out," says Sabourin, who'd experienced everything from shoulder reconstruction surgery to sleep apnea, on top of her mental health struggles.

Sabourin explains that she also wanted to learn how to truly connect with people. "It’s not like I couldn't have interpersonal relationships with people, but [I felt] like [I was] such a toll on people," she explains. "When I made the decision to do Goal Crushers, it was, overall, my last try to re-enter life."

Forty days later, challenge completed, Sabourin realized she was beginning to make connections with people in the Goal Crushers Facebook group. "Everyone was very supportive," she says of her fellow goal-crushers.

Though Sabourin may not have resolved some of the physical health concerns she had (something best reviewed with a doctor, admittedly), she was starting to make real progress in her ability to put herself out there and connect with people. After so many years of isolation, she says she finally felt herself coming out of her shell.

Taking Her Connections Offline

Boosted by this newfound sense of community, Sabourin then felt inspired to attend Shape Body Shop, an annual pop-up studio event in Los Angeles that offers a host of workout classes taught by fitness stars like Widerstrom, Jenny Gaither, Anna Victoria, and more.

But it wasn't really the fitness aspect of Body Shop that appealed to Sabourin—at least, not initially. It was actually the prospect of meeting one of her fellow Goal Crushers, named Janelle, IRL. See, Janelle lives in Canada and would be making the trek to Body Shop in LA, which is near to Sabourin. Once Sabourin realized she had an opportunity to meet a close online friend in person, she knew she couldn't pass it up—even if it meant facing some of her biggest fears.

Granted, the idea of socializing with strangers at a huge group event—especially given that she'd only just started working out and hadn't left the comfort of her home for much of a decade—put a knot in Sabourin's stomach. But she says she felt it was time to truly step outside of her comfort zone. "[Everyone] had been so respectful [in Goal Crushers] that I just decided to take a chance," she explains. "Not to say I didn't want to turn around [and go home], but it just seemed like the right time and place." (Related: Group Fitness Not Your Thing? This Might Explain Why)

That's when Sabourin met Widerstrom. Technically the two women knew each other from Sabourin's involvement in the Goal-Crushers Facebook Group, which Widerstrom actively participates in as well. But even then, Widerstrom says she noticed that Sabourin initially kept her guard up. "I remembered her name, but I never knew what she looked like because she never posted a profile picture," the trainer tells Shape. "It was this Dawn person who, every once in a while, would 'like' a picture [in the Facebook group]. She was engaged, but she never had a voice. I didn't know what was going on in her brain. To me, she was just Dawn with the empty profile picture. Obviously, there was a bigger story that I couldn't see at that point."

Sabourin says it was Widerstrom's support that helped her make it through the event that day—the first group workout class she'd ever participated in. "When Dawn got real support from real people, that's when things started to change for her," says Widerstrom.

Pushing Herself Even Further

After that day at Body Shop, Sabourin says she felt inspired to keep the momentum going. She decided to join a six-week weight-loss challenge at her local gym in California. "I lost 22 pounds and continued on," she says. "I'm still working out at that gym. I have made some incredible friends there who would do close to anything for me, and I for them. It's kind of overwhelming when you go from isolation to what I have now."

Sabourin's story may include some impressive weight-loss stats (altogether, she's lost 88 pounds in about one year), but Widerstrom believes her transformation goes much deeper than that. "The body, with any kind of consistent care, will change," she says. "So Dawn's physical change is very evident. The more dramatic change is who she is presenting and living as. Her behavior is what's blooming; the person. She's finally letting Dawn out." (Related: What I Wish I Knew Sooner About Losing Weight)

One defining moment of change was when Sabourin (finally) created a Facebook profile picture, shares Widerstrom—and not just any profile picture. She chose a photo that was taken at Shape Body Shop.

A profile picture might not seem to mean that much to most people. But to Widerstrom, it represented Sabourin's renewed sense of self. "It meant pride: 'I feel proud of myself, I feel comfortable sharing this important moment with anybody that's looking,'" explains the trainer of the photo's deeper meaning. 

When Sabourin returned to Shape Body Shop this year, she was taken aback at how much more comfortable she felt the second time around. "Last year, I was just trying to make it," she says. "This year, I felt much more a part of it."

Looking Ahead at What's Next

Since then, Sabourin says she's continued to exercise regularly, mainly in group workout classes at her local gym. "I'm hoping to build on [my workout routine]," she says. "But [exercise] is the one constant in my life. I may have a horrible day and never get out of bed—still, on some days. But I still make it to workouts 'cause that's the goal I'm working on now. I don't know where I'm going to end up or what my goal will be [in the future], but it's a stepping stone to hopefully re-entering all of life."

For Sabourin, she says group fitness connects her to reality and reminds her of everything she's capable of when she puts herself to a task. "It kind of boosts me up to come out and tackle something else later that day, something else in life, get something else accomplished." (Related: The Biggest Mental and Physical Benefits of Working Out)

Widerstrom refers to these accomplishments as the "reps of life." "These are the reps we take as humans in our behavior to start to get ourselves out there," she explains. "We need to practice these reps. We need to go out there, we need to try it, and we're going to learn a lot about what we're doing, whether we like it, whether we don't. Nine times out of 10, things don't go the way we thought they would, but we still love the experience. We feel pride; we feel informed; there's a level of service."

As for what's next, Sabourin says she doesn't really have an "ultimate goal" in mind. Instead, she's focused on taking small steps toward meeting more people, trying new workouts, and pushing herself past her perceived boundaries.

But if there's one thing she's learned throughout this experience, it's the importance of doing things that scare you. "I don't think anything really great can be accomplished unless you push yourself out of your comfort zone," says Sabourin. "You just kind of get stuck in a rut. So I'm just going to keep pushing, and we'll see what happens next. I don't know what the next year holds, but I hope that I get at least half of what I accomplished this year done. I'd be happy with that."

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