28 February 2024

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Mental Health

Prioritize Your Mental Health Before Fitness

As the COVID-19 pandemic worsen burnout and weariness, many individuals want to take a deep breath and discover a more balanced approach to life—at home, work, and the gym.

There are signs that people are increasingly more interested in the mental health advantages of exercise than the physical ones. According to a 2022 trends research from online fitness-class booking company Mindbody, the top two reasons Americans exercise are now to reduce stress and feel better emotionally. That’s a significant shift from even the recent pre-pandemic past; according to Mindbody’s 2019 research, managing weight and looking better were top motivators for many exercisers in 2019.

According to Genevieve Dunton, chief of health behaviour research at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, similar trends are emerging in scientific literature. “People are reporting slightly different motives for wanting to be active,” Dunton adds, compared to before the outbreak. “The reasons are certainly more about stress reduction, anxiety release, and improved sleep.”

The connection between physical activity and mental health is widely known. People have been talking about the mood-boosting “runner’s high” for at least a half-century, and countless studies, including one conducted by Dunton during the pandemic, confirm that exercise can improve mental health and mood, potentially even preventing or lessening symptoms of depression in some people.

However, the pandemic appears to have marked a cultural shift in the fitness sphere, as it has in so many others: mental illness is no longer a pleasant benefit of a routine of physical activity designed to burn calories or sculpt a six-pack. It is now the whole point for many individuals.

“Everything shifts when the world gets turned upside down,” Dunton asserts. “If one is dealing with sleep issues or feeling very anxious or stressed, that becomes the number-one priority, and the other priorities shift downward.”

According to Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, an associate professor of history at the New School and author of Fit Nation, a new book about the history and culture of exercise in the United States, fitness companies have recognised this trend. “You see now a lot more exercise programmes marketing themselves as [for] mental health or self care, rather than [with] a competitive, hard-driving ethos,” she says.

Even high-intensity exercise studios need to adapt to the times. Tone House, which offers physical conditioning programmes that are sometimes referred to as the hardest exercises in New York City, has recently reduced the intensity, according to chief operating officer Elvira Yambot. Yambot says the business recently began providing intermediate and beginner versions of its characteristic exercise in acknowledgment that “you may not [always] want to go 500% in an advanced class”—and that many individuals are out of shape after being dead for the previous two years.

Mental Health: A Threath During Covid Pandemic

In comparison to pre-pandemic times, Yambot says, more individuals are scheduling recovery treatments to help them remain healthy, such as sessions in Tone House’s NormaTec compression therapy equipment. In recent publications, both Mindbody and fitness startup ClassPass recognised “recovery services”—such as massages and sauna sessions—as developing trends, while the Wall Street Journal reported on the increasing number of rest and recovery programmes showing up in traditional gyms.

Tone House is thinking about expanding its health offerings, including yoga lessons, says Yambot. Given the brand’s reputation, this may come as a surprise, but “it goes back to a more balanced wellness plan, but also a larger approach to life,” Yambot explains. “It’s no longer a trendy term. Work-life balance is something that even New Yorkers are striving for now, more than ever.” (For the record, Yambot claims Tone House was never intended to be the most difficult exercise in New York.)

Is it safe to say that the days of high-intensity, physically demanding exercises are over? No, not always. According to the ClassPass 2021 fitness trends research, 60% of individuals choose high-energy exercises on stressful days, while 40% prefer relaxing activities such as yoga. And Joey Gonzalez, CEO of Barry’s, a company known for gruelling bootcamp workouts, claims that attendance at some of his locations is actually greater now than before the outbreak. “I don’t think there will be this major shift from high-intensity to low-impact,” he states. “There’s always a time and a place for different types of exercise.”

Petrzela believes this is most likely correct. “What we might be seeing is not so much a change in the actual exercise modalities that people are participating in, but more in their approaches to them,” she says. Consider CrossFit, which is known for workouts that include activities like Olympic weightlifting and cardio circuits—as well as an intensity that some claim has led to damage. The exercises remain strenuous, but the brand’s new CEO recently told TIME that he is dedicated to making CrossFit a better organisation in terms of culture.

According to Gonzalez, mental health is becoming a larger concern for Barry’s, even though the brand’s fundamental offers aren’t changing a lot. Every year, Barry’s sponsors a challenge for members, essentially a month-long drive to attend as many sessions as possible. The challenge’s focus this year was mental health. If they joined up, participants received a free trial of the treatment platform BetterHelp, and Barry’s sponsored virtual talks about their mental well-being.

A gentler, slower pandemic-era mindset—with an emphasis on mental health—might have eased the edges of certain difficult exercises for the time being. However, Petrzela feels that a new-found dedication to mental health isn’t the only factor inspiring individuals.

“Even with meditation and gentler mindfulness practises, there are a lot of people who engage in those to ‘self-optimize’ and be better at other things,” adds Petrzela. According to her, in American society, mindfulness is frequently simply another technique to focus on “improving your hustle, not taking a break from it.”

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