Mental Health Benefits Are Getting Americans Back to the Gym

s the COVID-19 pandemic continues to worsen burnout and fatigue, many people are eager to take a deep breath and find a more balanced approach to life—at home, at the office, and at the gym.

It is clear that more people now seek the mental and physical benefits of exercising than those for their physical health. Mindbody has released a report on 2022 that shows the top reasons Americans workout are to relieve stress and improve their mental health. That’s a striking change from even the recent pre-pandemic past; in 2019, controlling weight and looking better were top motivators for many exercisers, according to Mindbody’s report from that year.

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

It is clear that physical activity has a positive effect on mental health. People have talked about the mood-boosting “runner’s high” for at least half a 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 for some people. However, the pandemic appears to have signaled a shift in culture in the fitness industry. It is now clear that mental wellness is more than a pleasant side effect of an exercise program to lose weight or get a six-pack. It is the entire point for many.

“Everything shifts when the world gets turned upside down,” Dunton says. “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.”

This change has been noticed by fitness brands, according to Natalia Mehlman Petrzela (associate professor of history, New School) and author of Fit Nation a forthcoming book about the history and culture of exercise in the U.S. “You see now a lot more exercise programs marketing themselves as [for]Mental health and self-care are more important than [with] a competitive, hard-driving ethos,” she says.

Some of the most intense fitness studios in New York are adapting to meet current trends. Elvira Yambot is the chief operating officer of Tone House. The company offers intense workouts for athletic conditioning. The brand recently began offering intermediate and introductory versions of its signature workout, in recognition that “you may not [always] want to go 500% in an advanced class”—and that lots of people are a little out of shape after being extra sedentary for the last couple years, Yambot says.

Compared to pre-pandemic times, more people are now booking recovery services to help them stay well, such as sessions in Tone House’s NormaTec compression therapy devices, Yambot adds. Both Mindbody and fitness startup ClassPass identified “recovery services”—like massages and sauna sessions—as growing trends in recent reports, and the Wall Street Journal The number of traditional gyms offering recovery and rest classes has been reported by.

Tone House is considering adding more wellness services—and perhaps even yoga classes—to its schedule, Yambot says. That might be surprising given the brand’s reputation, but “it goes back to a more balanced wellness plan, but also a larger approach to life,” Yambot says. “It’s no longer a trendy term. Work-life balance is something that even New Yorkers are looking to incorporate now, more so than before.” (For the record, Yambot says Tone House never set out to become the hardest workout in New York.)

Do you think this means that the physical punishing, high-intensity workouts of old are gone? Not necessarily. According to ClassPass’ 2021 fitness trends report, 60% of people prefer high-energy workouts on stressful days, compared to 40% who go for calming activities like yoga. And Joey Gonzalez, CEO of Barry’s—a brand known for grueling bootcamp classes—says some of his studios are actually seeing higher attendance rates now than before the pandemic. “I don’t think there will be this major shift from high-intensity to low-impact,” he says. “There’s always a time and a place for different types of exercise.”

That’s probably true, Petrzela says. “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 explains. Take CrossFit, which is known for workouts that feature exercises like Olympic weight-lifting and cardio circuits—and an intensity that some people allege has driven them to injury. The workouts are still intense, but the brand’s new CEO recently told TIME he is committed to making CrossFit a healthier company, culturally speaking.

At Barry’s, mental health is also becoming a higher priority for the brand, even if its core offerings aren’t changing drastically, Gonzalez says. Each year, Barry’s sponsors a challenge for members: essentially, a push to attend lots of classes over a month-long period. This year’s challenge focused on mental health. Participants got a free trial of the therapy platform BetterHelp if they signed up, and Barry’s hosted virtual conversations about mental wellness.

A gentler, slower pandemic-era mindset—with an extra focus on mental health—may have softened the edges of some tough workouts for now. Petrzela thinks that not only is a renewed commitment to mental well being motivating people, but so too does a sense of purpose.

“Even with meditation and gentler mindfulness practices, there are a lot of people who engage in those to ‘self-optimize’ and be better at other things,” Petrzela says. In American culture, she says, mindfulness is often just another way to work on “improving your hustle, not taking a rest from it.”

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