Terry Crews says he experienced physical burnout from working too much: 'My body stopped'

Terry Crews against stylized background with title: Yahoo! Life, If figures, Terry Crews
Terry Crews talks about entering an era of prioritizing sleep. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images)

It Figures is Yahoo Life's body image series, delving into the journeys of influential and inspiring figures as they explore what body confidence, body neutrality and self-love mean to them. Read past interviews here.

As an NFL player turned Hollywood actor and television host, Terry Crews has done it all. Now, the multifaceted entertainment personality has a mantra he's adopted when it comes to his work and well-being: "No pressure."

It's a surprising motto for someone who is typically "going 100 miles an hour," the America's Got Talent star tells Yahoo Life. However, it's the mindset that he's had to adopt in order to keep himself going, both mentally and physically. "I'm 55 years old, and you know, 12 years ago, I was at the time when everybody was like, 'OK, it's time for your body to fall apart,'" Crews says. "But because I'm not comparing myself to anybody else, it's not. In fact, I'm doing everything I know and love to do. I love my workouts. I love when I go into the gym, because it's mine. It doesn't have anything to do with anybody else."

As an athlete, competition was part of the game. He's learned that that no longer serves him.

"When I was young, I used to compare myself to everyone else. And that's a problem because you're constantly, you know, feeling like you're underachieving, you're feeling like you're not doing enough," he says. "So what I would do is try to take on much more than I could and then I would get injured. And then I feel like a failure. It's a cycle that keeps going, because there's always somebody who can run faster, who can lift more and go longer."

Even after his football career had ended, Crews found himself in Hollywood striving to be better — and in better shape — than the person next to him. He spent a lot of time "trying to keep up with the Joneses," he says.

"That's how you spend too much money, that's how you do the wrong thing because you're trying to keep up with people who you really shouldn't even be comparing yourself to at all," Crews says. "I was doing too much, I was doing five different jobs, I was getting like three hours of sleep. And my body stopped."

Crews experienced massive headaches and difficulty breathing. "My whole body ached and I figured I had a flu," he says. He went to his doctor for an exam. "[The doctor] said, 'Terry, there is nothing wrong with you. You are exhausted.'"

He was told to take three full days of rest — something that Crews isn't used to. "My wife helped me do it. She's like, 'Don't pick up the phone, don't go to the meeting, don't do anything.' And I realized how important rest was." That's a message he's now committed to sharing.

"Guys like me don't talk about sleep enough," he says as a partner of sleep aid brand Natrol. "If you're sleeping, somehow you're lazy or you're not doing enough. But no ... I realized I was doing 20 things below average. And when I got to sleep, and I really got in my eight, nine hours of sleep, I could do three or four things beyond excellent."

Prioritizing rest has allowed Crews to "double my impact" when it comes to work. An 8:30 p.m. bedtime has also helped him stay sharp for his 5 a.m. workouts.

"What's weird is, I realize people want trainers to discipline them, but that doesn't work. Someone shouting at you to do things, or you feeling pressure in some kind of way, it does not reap any benefits. In fact, you reject it mentally, physically," he says. "The only discipline that works is self-discipline. Things have to be self-motivated, and then you feel proud of yourself."

It's what he refers to as "the cycle of success," which has ultimately replaced the cycle of guilt and shame that he had previously been in himself. "You feel bad about the time you missed or the time you didn't do enough, and then everybody around you will verify you didn't do enough. And I realized, no, that is not the way."

Ultimately, cheering himself on is something that's been crucial to Crews's success in and outside of the gym.

"I keep a picture on my desktop. It's a picture of me at about 8 years old with my front two teeth missing," the former Brooklyn Nine-Nine star shares. "And I talk to that picture, because he's me. Would you say anything that degrades that little kid? All you would do was give him props for what he did today. You would say, 'You did great today! You're doing good and you're giving everything you have.' But you know, the kid is gonna mess up, the kid is gonna make a mistake. It's not about that. It's about: What did you do right today? Always big-up yourself. Always talk good to yourself. Never ever degrade yourself or put yourself down. And that's not being narcissistic; it's just being realistic."