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Co-founders of Lansing boxing gym use fitness in recovery from inner 'demons' – Lansing State Journal

LANSING — Cursing is encouraged at EmPOWer Lansing, an eastside boxing gym.
Crying is fine, too.
“It’s a cathartic release” said Brian Daniels, the gym’s founder.
Daniels’ business partner Leah Traciak-Zenker shares that approach. 
“We don’t want you to stuff it away,” she said. “Whatever you’re working through, there’s something about hitting that bag that really brings it to the forefront.”
Both Daniels and Traciak-Zenker say boxing has helped them fight what they call their “demons.”
The pair opened EmPOWer LAnsing in 2018 on the 2000 block of East Michigan Avenue.
Daniels, a U.S. Army veteran and Purple Heart recipient, struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder after surviving a roadside bomb attack in 2005.
And the sport has helped Traciak-Zenker in her recovery from an eating disorder.
In conversations with clients at the gym, Daniels and Traciak-Zenker will acknowledge those issues.
Daniels is, in part, following the advice of a sergeant who walked into his hospital room at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center more than a decade ago.
“He was like, ‘Listen, talk about it,'”  Daniels remembered. “‘Talk about it often. Don’t keep it in. It will kill you.'”
Fourteen years ago, Daniels woke up in a ditch in Iraq with his right foot sitting next to the left side of his body. The vehicle Daniels had been riding in in had hit an improvised explosive device.
Daniels, now 33 years old, was the only survivor. Four men died.
Daniels had to learn to walk again after doctors reattached his foot. Over the course of his rehabilitation, he learned to love fitness and eventually became a personal trainer. 
It’s not a trajectory Daniels would have predicted for himself. He says he was a “scrawny, wimpy, quiet kid” growing up in Lansing and Grand Ledge.
Daniels had a difficult childhood. He was homeless for a time and, due to his grandfather’s veteran status, lived with his family at a Veterans of Foreign Wars home.
After leaving the Army, Daniels returned to Lansing, where he met Traciak-Zenker while working as her trainer.  
At the time, Traciak-Zenker was severely underweight due to an eating disorder and other health problems.
Some days, Traciak-Zenker was so weak she could barely get through her evening workouts.
Slowly, boxing convinced her to nourish her body. 
“In this day and age where women need to be so skinny, it was a way to give myself permission to gain that weight back on in a healthy way,” Traciak-Zenker said. 
She wasn’t always public about those challenges. It felt like a big deal when she updated her personal trainer bio on the EmPOWer website to mention her eating disorder.
Recently, Traciak-Zenker threw away the daily logs in which she chronicled every calorie she consumed, down to the last stick of gum.
Although she’s made progress, Traciak-Zenker is candid about the ongoing nature of her recovery. The 23-year-old still contends with “voices” that tell her she’s inadequate. Boxing, she said, is her “literal way to fight back” against those voices.
Likewise, Daniels recognizes that his own mental health journey did not end with his discharge from Walter Reed. He wrestles with guilt and with flashbacks. He goes to therapy. 
“We do a really good job of owning that openly and showing our scars,” Daniels said.
The gym, its founders say, is intended to be a welcoming place for clients, scars and all.
Boxing is the gym’s centerpiece, but EmPOWer also offers personal training and classes including yoga and circuit training. The first class is free. After that, it’s $15 for a single class. Other pricing options are available for memberships and class packages.
One thing that isn’t welcome during class: Apologizing. 
EmPOWer uses military-style punishments which means, if one person says “I’m sorry,” the whole class has to do push-ups or burpees.
It can be tough for first-time boxers to get over their aversion to punching another person. After all, children are taught not to hit.
“I’ve smacked people on the side of the head for not hitting me,” Traciak-Zenker said. “They hold back and you’re not doing yourself justice if you hold back.”
Her boxing playlist is meant to encourage a no-holds-barred attitude. Traciak-Zenker described the music as “rage-y.” Some of the lyrics are explicit.
“Life isn’t censored,” Daniels said. “Why should your workout be?”
If you are struggling with an eating disorder contact the National Eating Disorder Association helpline at (800) 931-2237. To get help for post-traumatic stress disorder call (800) 273-8255 and press “1” if you are a veteran. 
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Reporter Sarah Lehr can be reached at (517) 377-1056 or slehr@lsj.com. Follow her on Twitter @SarahGLehr.
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