ONEAs 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, the office, and the gym.
There are signs that people are seeking the mental health benefits of exercise even more than the physical ones. According to a 2022 trends report by online fitness class scheduling platform Mindbody, the top two reasons Americans exercise now are to reduce stress and feel better mentally. This is an impressive change even from the recent pre-pandemic past; in 2019, controlling weight and looking better were top motivators for many exercisers, according to that year’s Mindbody report.
Similar trends are appearing in the scientific literature, says Genevieve Dunton, head of health behavior research at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine. “People are reporting slightly different reasons for wanting to be active,” compared to before the pandemic, Dunton says. “The reasons are certainly more about reducing stress, releasing anxiety and improving sleep.”
The link between physical activity and mental well-being is well established. People have been talking about the mood-enhancing “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 it. or lessening symptoms of depression. for some people. But the pandemic seems to have heralded a culture shift in the fitness world, as in so many others: Mental well-being is no longer a happy side effect of an exercise routine meant to burn calories or sculpt a six pack. For many people, now is the main point.
“Everything changes when the world is turned upside down,” says Dunton. “If someone is dealing with sleep problems or feeling very anxious or stressed, that becomes the number one priority, and the other priorities shift down.”
Fitness brands have noticed this shift, says Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, associate professor of history at the New School and author of fit nation, a forthcoming book on the history and culture of exercise in the US “You now see a lot more exercise programs advertising themselves as [for] mental health or self-care, rather than [with] a competitive and demanding ethos,” she says.
Super intense fitness studios are even adapting to suit the moment. Tone House, which offers athletic conditioning classes that are often called the toughest workouts in New York City, has slowed down lately, says COO Elvira Yambot. The brand has recently started offering intermediate and introductory versions of its signature workout, acknowledging that “you can’t [always] I want to go 500% in an advanced class” — and that many people are a little out of shape after being more sedentary in the last couple of years, says Yambot.
Compared to pre-pandemic times, more people are now booking recovery services to help them get well, such as sessions on Tone House’s NormaTec compression therapy devices, Yambot adds. Both Mindbody and fitness startup ClassPass have identified “recovery services” — such as massages and sauna sessions — as growing trends in recent reports, and Wall Street Daily reported on the number of rest and recovery classes popping up in traditional gyms.
Tone House is considering adding more wellness services — and maybe even yoga classes — to its schedule, says Yambot. That might be surprising given the brand’s reputation, but “it appeals to a more balanced wellness plan, but also a broader approach to life,” says Yambot. “It is no longer a buzzword. Work-life balance is something even New Yorkers are looking to embody now more than ever before.” (For the record, Yambot says the Tone House never set out to become the toughest workout in New York.)
Does this mean that the days of high-intensity training and physical punishment are over? Not necessarily. According to ClassPass’ 2021 Fitness Trends Report, 60% of people prefer high-energy workouts on stressful days, compared to 40% who opt for calming activities like yoga. And Joey Gonzalez, CEO of Barry’s—a brand known for grueling bootcamp classes—says that some of his studios are actually seeing higher participation rates now than they were before the pandemic. “I don’t think there’s going to be this big shift from high-intensity to low-impact,” he says. “There is always a time and a place for different types of exercise.”
That’s probably true, says Petrzela. “What we may 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 weightlifting and circuit aerobics — and an intensity that some people claim has led to injuries. The workouts are still intense, but the brand’s new CEO recently told TIME that he’s 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 dramatically, says Gonzalez. Each year, Barry’s sponsors a challenge for members: essentially, a push to attend many classes over a period of one month. This year, the challenge was about mental health. Participants received a free trial of the BetterHelp therapy platform if they signed up, and Barry’s virtual conversations about mental well-being.
A softer, slower pandemic-era mindset – with an extra focus on mental health – may have softened the edges of some tough workouts for now. But Petrzela suspects that a newfound dedication to mental well-being isn’t the only thing motivating people.
“Even with meditation and gentler mindfulness practices, there are many people who engage in them to ‘self-optimize’ and be better at other things,” says Petrzela. In American culture, she says, mindfulness is often just another way of working to “improve your agitation, not rest.”
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