People are hurting right now, in more ways than one. The pandemic engendered intense bereavement, economic insecurity, fear of illness and death, social isolation, forced work-from-home, home schooling, heightened domestic conflict, and disruption of daily routines. Simple joys and recreational activities—like going to movies or sporting events, gathering with friends, and traveling—were all restricted. As the world puts one tentative foot in front of another, it is critical that we address mental and emotional health and wellness.

The pandemic significantly disrupted the fitness industry, requiring professionals in every segment and role to reevaluate their services and products. This challenge is an opportunity. “Historically [in the fitness business], we made what we look like the definition of success,” says Petra Kolber, author, speaker, DJ and digital nomad. “When we can realize that our body is not the endgame, but rather a very precious vehicle that is going to carry us into a life of our dreams and help us fulfill our purpose, then we can move into a more uplifting and sustainable conversation around movement and well-being.”

Experts in training, branding, marketing and mental health share how fitness professionals can succeed in today’s market and play a meaningful role in addressing the mental health pandemic.

A Line of Defense

More and more people are seeking relief from chronic stress, anxiety and depression, even if it does not rise to clinical levels. While older adults have borne the greatest physical health risks from the pandemic, younger adults and women, in particular, have suffered higher mental health risks, according to research in The Lancet (Pierce et al. 2020). The American Psychological Association’s Stress in America™ poll revealed that parents, essential workers and people from communities of color were all more likely to report mental and physical health consequences and that Gen Z adults (ages 18–24) were the most likely to report a worsening of their mental health and wellness compared with pre-pandemic times (APA 2021).

Fitness professionals possess important skills and knowledge to address this crisis, but promoting physical training while also uplifting minds and spirits requires clear understanding and intention. Across the spectrum, from business owners to trainers, fit pros can promote exercise not only for its penchant to improve physical health but also for its powerful ability to serve the entire person—to provide mental health and wellness benefits without any of the side effects of pharmaceutical treatments.

Why isn’t everyone turning to exercise first? Does the public know just how much value fitness pros deliver? Let’s take a deep dive into fitness marketing and ask ourselves two questions:

  1. Are we meeting this moment with messaging and services that address the foremost concerns of prospective clients in a post-pandemic world?
  2. Are we having conversations with people that support their most urgent needs?

Defining the Mental Health and Wellness Pandemic

Person resting with eyes closed and hands clasped to represent mental health and wellness

Just as the pandemic spotlighted healthcare inequality and disparities, it also revealed chronic underfunding and lack of national and international support for existing mental health programs.

Before addressing today’s mental health crisis, it’s important to understand its parameters. “Among adults in the U.S. reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression during the period January to June 2021, 11% of the population admitted to experiencing these symptoms,” says Michael Mantell, PhD, a transformational behavior and leadership coach in San Diego.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that, in December 2020, a whopping 42% of U.S. adults reported anxiety or depression. Between January 20, 2021, and February 1, 2021, more than 2 in 5 adults experienced symptoms of anxiety or depression, and 1 in 4 reported needing, but not receiving, therapy for mental health and wellness (Vahratian et al. 2021).

Americans are not alone in this crisis. The World Health Organization (WHO) emphasized that nations must consider mental health along with public health. “The COVID-19 pandemic has been a stark reminder of the importance of integrating mental health into preparedness and response plans for public health emergencies,” said Dévora Kastel, director of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Use at WHO.

A letter published in Psychological Medicine describes “PTSD as the second tsunami of the SARS-Cov-2 pandemic” (Dutheil, Mondillon & Navel 2020). The authors raise awareness of the global need to consider policies for preventive treatment of individuals with PTSD—particularly frontline workers, patients, caregivers and family members—who may need to cope with trauma and higher suicide risks in upcoming months.

While the need for mental health services is surging, the pandemic is also disrupting the ability of mental healthcare professionals to offer services in 93% of countries worldwide, according to a 2020 WHO survey. Just as the pandemic spotlighted healthcare inequality and disparities in access to care, it also revealed chronic underfunding and lack of national and international support for existing mental health programs. According to pre-COVID-19 estimates, nearly $1 trillion in economic productivity is lost annually from depression and anxiety. And studies show that for every $1 spent on evidence-based care for depression and anxiety, the return is $5 (WHO 2020). Exercise is an evidence-based adjunctive therapy for both depression and anxiety.

Physical Activity for Mental Health and Wellness Benefits

A woman smiling while exercising in a gym

Fitness professionals can’t guarantee how a client’s body will change from consistent training, but they can share proven mental health and wellness benefits.

Scientific evidence supports the ability of exercise to alleviate anxiety and depression symptoms, even for those with major depressive disorder. For an in-depth research review showing that exercise can relieve anxiety and depression, read “Train Yourself Happy: Exercise Can Play a Key Role in Alleviating Anxiety and Depression” (Archer 2014).

See also: Training Happy for Positive Behavioral Change

Evidence-Based Benefits of Exercise

Fitness professionals can’t guarantee how a client’s body will change from consistent training, but they can confidently share proven, significant mental health benefits. “Physical activity has a very, very large body of research to support that it is consistently associated with physical and mental benefits,” says Patrick J. O’Connor, PhD, FACSM, professor of kinesiology at the University of Georgia in Athens. And people can experience the benefits of physical activity regardless of age, abilities, ethnicities, shape or size (CDC 2021).

Regular physical activity offers the following evidence-based mental health and wellness benefits:

  • reduced feelings of anxiety—both short-term (state anxiety) and long-term (trait anxiety)—in adults
  • improved cognition in children ages 6–13 and adults over 50
  • fewer depression risks for children from age 6 to adults of all ages
  • improved sleep
  • better quality of life
  • lower risk of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease

Many mental health benefits occur immediately after one session of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (CDC 2021).

What Is Mental Health and Wellness?

Today’s consumer is looking for mental health solutions. The wellness market evolved as consumers wanted to optimize personal health, rather than simply not be sick. Similarly, consumers are now prioritizing mental health and wellness as “self-care.” The mental wellness economy was estimated at $121 billion globally in 2020 by the Global Wellness Institute (GWI 2020). Fitness providers can respond to this market now with targeted messaging to capture strong and growing consumer interest in services and products.

The Mental Wellness Gym

This market trend began before the pandemic with companies like Coa, which dubs itself “your gym for mental health” and offers online emotional fitness workouts. Coa was founded in 2018 in San Francisco and is backed by Kevin Love, professional basketball player with the Cleveland Cavaliers, among others. Love, who openly discusses his challenges with anxiety and depression, created the Kevin Love Fund, with a commitment to normalize the conversation around mental health and to empower people to pursue mental wellness with the same vigor as physical health.

In 2019, booksellers noted that, for the first time, American readers showed more interest in books on mental health than in books about diet and exercise. “. . . [B]ooks focused on mental well-being are far outpacing titles addressing exercise and dieting,” Liz Harwell, Barnes & Noble senior director of merchandising for trade books, told Michael Schaub of the Los Angeles Times. “When it comes to preparing for New Year’s resolutions and goals, the data shows that across the [Barnes & Noble] chain more people are buying books about mental and emotional well-being as opposed to what were previously the more popular areas of exercise and dieting” (Schaub 2019).

During the pandemic, app-based mental wellness programs surged, with Headspace® and others generating record sales. MindLabs, another app-based mental health program, was founded in 2020. Adnan Ebrahim, co-founder of MindLabs, told TechCrunch that the company’s goal is to “make taking care of your mental health as normal as going to the gym” (Shu 2020).

Another athlete, U.K. footballer Gareth Bale, has backed the London-based company Rowbots, which features a “mental health workout” along with physical training. Incorporating “mental health objectives” is a crucial aspect of modern sports science, Bale told Samuel Fishwick of the Evening Standard (Fishwick 2019).

“All movements are generated from the ground up—the grassroots,” says Victor Brick, co-founder and CEO of Planet Fitness Growth Partners and founder of the John W. Brick Mental Health Foundation in Miami. “People are going to drive this change [for mental wellness options].”

Jessica H. Maurer, FIT4MOM® senior instructor of instructor development in Asheville, North Carolina, agrees. “We are seeing people choose to move for reasons outside of the [weight loss] scale, such as mental clarity, emotional health and stress relief. Again, this is not everyone and all clients, but there is a wave building.”

Training to Thrive: The Dual Continuum of Mental Wellness and Mental Illness

One good way to understand how fitness professionals can assist clients with mental wellness, according to Brick, is with a dual-continuum model of mental wellness and mental illness.

“Historically, mental health has been considered as one continuum,” says Brick. “On one end, you had ‘well-adjusted’ qualities like happiness. Let’s say that’s a 10. As you moved down the scale, minor depression and anxiety cropped up. Further down were clinically diagnosed illnesses like depression, bipolar and schizophrenia, with suicide at the very end. People moved up and down this continuum based on physiology, pathological condition and life events. Fitness and wellness professionals [have tried] to push people up toward the happiness end of the spectrum. This horizontal spectrum is pathologic [of or related to a disease condition] and is related to your brain function.

“In reality, it’s a dual continuum. The vertical axis is salutogenic [of or related to promoting well-being rather than disease]. It deals with holistic approaches and lifestyle programs that can get you from languishing to flourishing.

“For example, you can be depressive or have serious mental illnesses, but you can go from languishing to flourishing if you do all the right things—stop smoking, exercise, have the right friends, get the ‘right’ job. The dual continuum [which incorporates the medical and wellness spectrums] is a clinical way of approaching this topic. You can ‘sell it’ to the medical and wellness communities and the general public. Plus, it shows why we need to get away from talking about just the physical with fitness and start talking about the total body.”

Fitness instructors have the training, the skills and a powerful tool—safe and effective movement—to boost health and wellness; they just need to let the public know. “When trainers understand the power of their tools in helping people deal with emotional distress, sometimes even more directly than medication or psychiatric treatment, and take the time to learn how to approach and properly communicate with those who are emotionally distressed, a training session will bring far more health than another set of crunches will ever do,” says Mantell. “Personal trainers are not doing psychotherapy or counseling. They use fitness to boost healthy mood. They [can] use the tool they have—fitness—to help emotional functioning.”

See also: Exercise Is Good for Mental Health

Mental health and wellness continuum

Shift to a Whole-Person Approach

Brick and others believe the entire industry needs to shift. “Fitness and wellness industries need to realize that they are one and the same [and] start working together instead of separately,” he says. Maurer agrees. “If we want clients to see our services as part of their total wellness, we need to answer their pain points, which go far beyond losing weight. This means less emphasis on ‘calories burned per hour’ and more on the ‘sweat can make you happy’ message,” she says.

Antonio Williams, PhD, FACSM, associate professor at Indiana University in Bloomington and a fitness branding expert, also concurs. “For years, the fitness industry has been making promises about what it can’t deliver—how a person’s body will appear after training. Consequently, consumers judge it based on that message. Because the industry is not promoting the ‘feel better’ message, consumers aren’t going to rate it by that.”

Meet People Where They Are

A diverse group of people smiling and cheering together

Reconnect with clients and let them know there are tools they can use to improve their mental and physical health and wellness.

“Since this is a time when everything is so different, it’s an opportunity to go back and define your clients’ needs—specifically their mental and emotional needs—and how you can [meet those] in a unique and differentiated way,” says Billy Polson, co-founder of The Business Movement in San Francisco. “It’s so important for your marketing, branding and connection with your clients that you feel current. Reconnect. Let folks know there are tools they can use to boost their mental and physical health now.”

Walk the Talk

It’s crucial that fitness professionals address their own mental wellness needs. “Our job is to help bring ‘glow’ back into people’s lives,” says Polson. “Take care of number one first; then you’re at your potential to help others get back.”

“Demonstrate through your own actions that working out is linked with mental health. . . . People need to trust the messenger before they trust the message,” says Michael Matthews, CEO and founder of Legion Athletics in Clearwater, Florida. Lawrence Biscontini, MA, mindful movement specialist and fitness virtual host in Puerto Rico and New York, as well as Mykonos, Greece, adds, “Stay grounded and strong in your own fitness convictions of what’s important by surrounding yourself with those who emphasize your values and goals.”

Address Diversity, Emphasize Inclusivity

The pandemic has heightened awareness around diversity issues, while also stimulating perceptual changes about the value of life, health and happiness. “If you’re still using ‘ladies and gentlemen,’ you’re behind,” says Biscontini. “Consider using inclusive greetings, such as ‘guys, gals and our nonbinary pals.’” Statistics show clear disparities in mental health and wellness consequences from the pandemic, particularly for essential workers and people of color, among others (APA 2021).

This is not new. A 2017 American Psychological Association report showed that people of color and of lower socioeconomic status have significantly less access to stress reduction resources than other groups. This problem is compounded by higher levels of stress from exposure to discrimination, threats to safety and financial security, greater exposure to violence, and barriers to occupational advancement (APA 2017).

While tackling issues of systemic inequality and access disparities is a real challenge, every person can commit to positive change. Williams notes that, historically, recreational facilities were segregated spaces, barring people of color. “Today, people ‘pay’ for segregation in certain spaces,” he says. “African-Americans have been asked to leave certain fitness facilities or even been assaulted, for example in condo workout facilities, because someone said they didn’t belong there. And, even if there aren’t overt racial slurs, many microaggressions can occur. Why, if I’m looking for respite from anxiety, would I turn to a place that causes anxiety?”

These are powerful questions that every fitness professional should ask: “Does what I offer cause anxiety for people I want to include?” “How can I create a space of true belonging and safety?” Evaluate your messaging—visual, written, spoken and nonverbal. Is it inviting and welcoming? Does it empower or shame individuals? Biscontini recommends showing over telling when posting on social media. “Use a cross-section of age groups, demographics, ethnicities,” he says. “In addition to physical training, include meditation, mindfulness and stress reduction. Ultimately, we will attract more clients when we focus on spreading wellness, joy and overall well-being, because 100% of our population want that. The other physique-based stuff? Not so much.”

See also: Creating Inclusivity in Fitness Spaces

Make a Difference in Health and Wellness

Fitness professionals have an opportunity to bridge the gap for services that boost whole-person health and to address, in a way that only fit pros are uniquely qualified to do, the global mental health crisis. This contribution can literally be the difference between life and death. Physical activity is internationally recognized by research institutions, government and public policy officials as critical to health and wellness.

If the industry can reimagine itself to serve the need for inclusive health promotion, the future is indeed bright—for the leaders who affect people’s lives, for an industry engaged in healthful life transformation and for public health. We’ve got this.