There are signs that people are now looking for the mental health benefits of exercise even more than the physical ones. According to a 2022 Trend Report According to online fitness class planning platform Mindbody, the top two reasons Americans work out now are to reduce stress and feel better mentally. This is a stark change even from the recent pre-pandemic past; in 2019, weight control and looking better were top motivators for many athletes, according to Mindbody’s this year’s report.
Similar trends appear in the 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 reasons for wanting to be active,” compared to before the pandemic, Dunton says. “The reasons are certainly more related to reducing stress, releasing anxiety and sleep improvement.”
The link between physical activity and mental well-being is well established. People have talked about the mood-enhancing “runner’s high” for at least half a centuryand countless studies, including a conducted by Dunton during the pandemic – confirm that exercise can improve mental health and mood, potentially even prevent or alleviate 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 a workout routine meant to burn calories or sculpt a six-pack. For many people, this is now the whole point.
“Everything changes when the world is turned upside down,” says Dunton. “If you have trouble sleeping or if you feel very anxious or stressed, it becomes the number one priority, and the other priorities move down.
Fitness brands have caught on to this change, 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 United States “Now you see a lot more exercise programs selling like [for] mental health or personal care, rather than [with] a competitive and dynamic ethic,” she says.
Super intense fitness studios even adapt to the moment. Tone House, which offers fitness classes often referred to as the toughest workouts in new york, has been lowering the intensity lately, says chief operating officer Elvira Yambot. The brand recently began offering intermediate and introductory versions of its signature workout, acknowledging that “you can’t [always] want to go 500% to an advanced class” – and that many people are a little out of shape after being extra sedentary for a few yearsYambot said.
Compared to pre-pandemic times, more people are now booking recovery services to help them stay healthy, such as sessions in Tone House’s NormaTec compression therapy machines, adds Yambot. Mindbody and fitness startup ClassPass have identified “recovery services,” like massages and sauna sessions—like the growing trends in recent reportsand Wall Street Log reported on the number of rest and recovery classes that appear in traditional gyms.
Tone House is considering adding more wellness services — and maybe even yoga classes — to its schedule, Yambot says. This may come as a surprise given the brand’s reputation, but “it comes down to a more balanced wellness plan, but also a broader approach to life,” says Yambot. “It’s not a buzzword anymore. Work-life balance is something even New Yorkers are looking to embrace now, more than before. (For the record, Yambot says Tone House never intended to become New York’s toughest workout.)
Does this mean that the days of intense and physically taxing workouts are over? Not necessarily. According to ClassPass’ 2021 Fitness Trends Report60% of people prefer high-energy workouts on stressful days, compared to 40% who opt for soothing activities like yoga. And Joey Gonzalez, CEO of Barry’s — a brand known for its 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 is always a time and a place for different types of exercises.”
That’s probably true, says Petrzela. “What we might see is not so much a change in the actual exercise modalities that people participate in, but rather in their approach,” she explains. Take CrossFitwho is known for his workouts that feature exercises like Olympic weightlifting and cardio circuits, and an intensity that some people to allege led them to injury. Workouts are always intense, but the brand’s new CEO recently told TIME that he was committed to making CrossFit a healthier companyculturally speaking.
At Barry’s, mental health is also becoming a higher priority for the brand, even though its core offerings aren’t changing drastically, Gonzalez says. Every year, Barry’s sponsors a challenge for members: essentially, a push to attend many classes over a period of one month. This year, the theme of the challenge was mental health. Participants got a free trial of the BetterHelp therapy platform if they signed up, and virtual conversations hosted by Barry on mental wellness.
A softer, slower pandemic-era mindset — with an added focus on mental health — may have softened the edges of some tough workouts for now. But Petrzela suspects a new dedication to mental well-being isn’t the only thing motivating people.
“Even with meditation and gentler mindfulness practices, there are a lot of people who go into it to ‘self-optimize’ and be better at other things,” says Petrzela. In American culture, she says, mindfulness is often just another way of working on “improving your restlessness, not resting.”
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