This week on aSweatLife.com, in honor of World Mental Health Day on October 10 we’re talking about mental health to raise awareness of the issues we all face and lessen the stigma of discussing mental health openly. We believe #everythingisbetterwithfriends, and we encourage you to be open to discussing mental health with yours — and if you need to talk to someone right now, you can dial 1-800-273-8255 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
“Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands. They just don’t!”
Elle Woods accurately describes the way most people view personal trainers, group fitness instructors, and everyone else in the fitness and wellness industry. After all, life looks like a dream: you’re paid to work out all day, your professional attire is leggings and a tank top, and you spend your hours blasting fun playlists while encouraging your clients to be their best selves.
It was only once I became a group fitness instructor myself that I realized my life wasn’t magically perfect overnight, and I was still susceptible to anxiety, sadness, and more moments that weren’t worth a Valencia filter.
Carrie Bradshaw-like, I couldn’t help but wonder: are fitness instructors struggling with mental health at the same rates of the rest of the population?
“In fitness, mental health in general is so overlooked,” began Kailee Martin, Crosstown Fitness elite trainer. “We focus on body, body, body — but being healthy overall starts with the mind. Mentally, we as trainers are taking care of people, we’re giving ourselves all day long. But it’s overlooked truly how much mental time you need as a trainer.”
Conor Janda, a Chicago fitness instructor at [solidcore], points out that one of the biggest misconceptions people have about fitness instructors is that they’re totally perfect human beings.
“I’m not perfect,” he says matter-of-factly.”I do [solidcore] five times a week, and I still don’t have abs.”
Taking Care of Others versus Taking Care of Self
Starting a career as a trainer wasn’t totally new for Martin. As a former dancer, she knows the sensation of “turning it on” as soon as you strut onto the stage — or walk onto the gym floor, as the case may be today.
Similarly, Janda notes that when teaching, “you definitely have to be on the entire time. You own the room.”
As Martin began adding more and more classes to her schedule, “being on” started to become a drain — and almost a type of performance in itself.
“It’s exhausting to motivate 50 people at a time,” she notes. “It’s so much more mentally involved than just yelling at people. No matter how you feel, you have to be 100 percent ready and in that frame of mind when class starts.”
Mental health expert and licensed clinical social worker Tiffany Louise validated Martin’s feelings, connecting it to what she calls the “energy exchange.”
“When people are coming into a space, they are bringing their day, their pain, and their stories about their body to that experience,” she says, explaining that fitness instructors are prone to absorbing their clients’ energy and taking on their emotions during class.
Admitting that it sounds kind of “woo woo,” Louise notes that while this phenomenon is experienced by dentists and doctors as well as fitness professionals, no one really talks about how to manage that exchange of vibes. However, there are ways to manage being present – and holding presence – without absorbing others’ energy.
“Know your self-soothing and self-care techniques to prepare for before, during, and after class,” she advises. “That might mean you wash your hands after class and symbolically say ‘I am cleansing the energy of the day.’ On a break between class you might try a meditation.”
Balancing Personal and Professional on Social Media
As a trainer, there can be a huge pressure to promote your classes on social media, to post photos of yourself working out to attract people to your “brand,” and to adhere to a tacitly-agreed upon highlight reel of effortlessly-glamorous workouts, smoothies, and inspirational captions.
Kate Lemere, Barry’s Bootcamp Chicago Founding Trainer and Director of Midwest Marketing, Nike Master Trainer, and all-around fitness expert, admits that when she first stepped on the group fitness scene in 2009, social media was “NOTHING like it is today.”
By day, Lemere works in marketing strategy for Barry’s Bootcamp, meaning she sees both sides of the social media content mill: she’s able to view social media as a broadview strategist, and as someone who’s very tuned in to what she puts out on her channels. And yes, she’s all too aware of what that “highlight reel” mentality can lead to.
“About a week ago, I attempted to post a ‘progress picture’ for literally 20 minutes. I took probably 50 photos and each one was messier, and more off centered than the next. I cropped, filtered, edited, and finally had had enough. I was so over it!,” Lemere laughs. “I ended up posting one of them as is and included in my caption, ‘I can’t spend more time on this and what’s the point of cropping out this shit show of a bathroom when it’s my REAL LIFE?!’ I owned it, and made a mental note to tidy up afterward.”
Now, Lemere follows what she calls a “down-and-dirty” content strategy on her personal channels.
“I think opportunistically about my current moment and what may be beneficial to share. I don’t edit my photos, and post most of my content in real time. I post what I preach and talk about the workouts I’m already doing, the nutrition I’m currently consuming, and the goals I’m working for in the here and now.”
Louise, meanwhile, notes that there’s a “huge amount of comparison syndrome and perfectionism that can lead to a lot of anxiety and body dysmorphia” in the fitness industry.
“That’s social media as a whole in any industry,” she points out, “but especially when your body is, in essence, your calling card.”
How Trainers Can Prioritize Their Own Mental Health
So, what should a full-time trainer do to ensure they’re giving their mental health the same attention they give their physical health? The trainers and experts we spoke to offered the following advice.
Create Self-Care Rituals and Habits
In addition to the practices mentioned earlier in the article to avoid absorbing clients’ energies , Louise also recommends taking care of yourself before taking care of others.
“You’ve got to pour into yourself so you’re giving from a full cup and making sure you’re not running on fumes,” she cautions. “Does that mean your sacred workout time is non-negotiable? Or that you create practices throughout the day to fill your cup?”
Martin knows to dial up the self-care when she feels herself “either overworking or hibernating.”
“If I’m teaching a million classes, chances are I’m trying to avoid however I feel. Or, I hibernate and mentally try to sink into myself.”
When she notices herself leaning towards either of these extremes and feeling like she’s not fully present in class or in conversations, Martin turns toward self-care rituals that she knows from experience benefit her mind, body, and soul, like getting in a workout or writing out her affirmations.
Social Media Responsibly
For individual trainers, controlling your social media input and output can be small changes that make huge mental differences.
For starters, to straddle the line between being personal and being professional while building a social media brand, Lemere has the following advice: remember your IRL clients.
“Building your digital brand is important, but it’s not as important as the people you interact with in REAL LIFE and it’s not as important as your [professional development and] education,” Lemere reminds us. “If social media isn’t paying your bills, then the majority of your time shouldn’t be spent on social media. Your time should be a direct correlation with your returns.”
And if you’re struggling, it’s totally okay to share your true feelings with your followers — you might be surprised by how they respond, especially if you know you’ve already got a supportive base, says Lemere.
“The larger your following, the more people you have supporting you,” she points out. “Of course you’ll get a few bad posts/comments/DMs, but with a larger population comes more positivity.”
Louise believes strongly in what she calls “responsible vulnerability” on social media, which she defines as sharing posts when you don’t care what the outcome is.
“If it’s well-received, bravo. If you lose followers, who cares? Their response isn’t contingent on your internal well-being.”
Lemere agrees with Louise, adding “I do think delivery is everything. You can convey vulnerability in a positive way, or you can convey vulnerability in an isolating and alienating way. I think it depends on your tone of voice and the community that YOU cultivate.”
To that, Louise advises trainers to share something that’s complete — not if you’re still in the process of something. She also recommends flipping your perspective and asking yourself what kind of clients you want to attract.
“Being willing to tolerate the loss of some followers might get you more of your ideal clients, ones that feel in alignment with the messaging that you want to position. I think if you see a lot of some of the most successful fitness professionals, like Emily Skye, you see that they’re sharing in a way that feels authentic.”
Martin agrees, adding, “If you have that bandwidth, use it! Tell people I’m with you on this, I’m there, it’s not abnormal, let’s work together about what action we need to take to change.”
Regardless of where and how trainers decide to be open about mental health issues, even taking that first step is an act of courage.
Says Janda, “I don’t know how you break that pressure [of appearing perfect], but I think talking about imperfection is really important.
“At [solidcore], you get called out in class if you’re a coach,” explaining how coaches will often point out fellow coaches in the room as an example for other students to look too. “We say, ‘Will it be perfect? It will not. But it will be good!’”
It’s the same mentality when it comes to talking about mental health in the fitness industry — it won’t be perfect, not for a long time (if ever). But just getting it out in the open — that’s definitely a good thing.
Check back tomorrow, when we’ll address what gyms and studios can do to help prioritize mental health in the fitness industry.