There are thousands of health clubs and gyms to help get physically fit. Yet, where do you go to improve your mental and emotional fitness?
During the pandemic an increasing number of people sought mental health treatment through psychologists and therapists. Another option that emerged over the last year are mental health gyms or mental fitness studios to get your mind and emotional health in shape.
Demand for mental health services is greater than ever before, with more than three-quarters of Americans agreeing that mental health is just as important as physical health, according to research by the National Council for Mental Wellbeing.
The COVID-19 pandemic triggered a significant surge in mental health therapy with increased cases of anxiety and depression. A survey conducted by the American Psychological Association found that nearly one-third of adults said sometimes they are so stressed about the coronavirus pandemic that they struggle to make basic decisions, such as what to wear or what to eat.
[READ: Is My Depression Getting Worse?]
Mental Health Gyms: What Are They?
This new way of treating emotional well-being provides a different way for people to build and maintain mental wellness and tackle issues like stress and burnout. The programs are designed to strengthen important skills like courage, gratitude and confidence, but not replace intensive treatment that only mental health care professionals are trained to do.
“Many people want ongoing help with their emotional well-being and not just when they are feeling down and depressed,” says psychologist Dr. Ronald Breazele, founder and director of Psychological and Educational Services, an independent practice of psychologists and mental health professionals in northern New England.
He explains that these new programs are reminiscent of the community mental health centers that started in the 70s that provided education and basic skills on emotional well-being. “Those community programs taught life skills to improve communication, manage stress and build mental resiliency, back when there were too many people to be seen individually by mental health professionals,” says Breazele.
During the pandemic, mental fitness studios — like Coa and Liberate — popped up to fill a need for more mental health help.
“As COVID grew in the U.S., my mental well-being — and that of so many others — took a big hit,” explains Liv Bowser, founder of Liberate, a virtual mental fitness studio based in Los Angeles. “I craved a more purpose-driven role that would let me not only take care of my mental well-being, but also improve collective mental wellness so everyone could feel supported with whatever they are going through.”
Bowser explains that her options when she wanted to work on her mental well-being were to use a meditation app or go to therapy alone. “Both of those resources have been valuable for me and for so many people, but they can still be very isolating environments,” Bowser says. “So I thought to myself, why can’t I create a mental fitness studio to help others like me feel resilient, confident and mentally fit?”
Class Structure and Cost
Participants have the option of choosing classes over Zoom, joining pre-recorded on-demand videos or, in some cases, attending in-person sessions at local gyms. Classes are led by a variety of experts — like therapists at Coa and yoga instructors or meditation teachers through Liberate’s programs. People can choose individual classes or purchase a series of classes that typically range from 30 to 60 minutes. Check with your local gym or health club to see if they offer online or in-person mental fitness sessions.
There are a variety of classes to choose from. Certain programs are more meditation or mindfulness focused, while others incorporate movement exercises and yoga routines. Some places even provide group discussion settings for people to share their daily issues and challenges to build mental resilience and overcome stress and anxiety.
Cost of sessions at a mental health gym can vary by company or location, but it’s generally more affordable than traditional one-on-one therapy. For example, sessions can cost from $25 a live session with Coa or $19 a month with Liberate’s on-demand videos. In comparison, an individual session with a professional therapist can cost on average between $100 to $200.
What to Expect From Class
At Liberate, the classes begin with intention setting, which follows similar rules for goal setting. “They can be words or feelings that help to achieve greater mental and physical energy,” Bowser explains.
It’s important to state intentions in the positive. Instead of saying, ‘I don’t want to eat junk food anymore,’ you can state, ‘I will adopt healthy eating habits.’ Other intentions may include: ‘I want to be a good role model,’ ‘I intend to be more forgiving,’ and ‘I intend to see the goodness in others.’
After intention setting, the class transitions to mindful movement like yoga, journaling and conversation and closes with meditation exercises. Writing in a diary or journaling has been shown to lower anxiety, stress and promote better sleep. Journal writing is a positive way to express yourself and can help people with chronic diseases achieve their health goals.
Bowser worked with a mental performance coach to develop the specific activities and format. “The class is designed to be a dynamic flow that feels like a dance or a physical fitness class where you’re moving from one exercise to the next without it feeling disjointed,” Bowser says.
Right Time, Right Approach
The growing demand for mental health services is occurring when there are fewer psychologists and therapists available. The profession has been facing a shortage of trained experts for many years. Providing online group sessions to maintain mental well-being might be arriving at the perfect time, Breazele says.
“If individual therapy is not available due to public demand, with the growing shortage of trained providers, people are going to have to accept other approaches and one of them might be doing more group sessions,” Breazele says. “One-on-one sessions will always be important, but that doesn’t mean some needs cannot be addressed in group settings.”
Bowser, who recently appeared on ABC TV’s Shark Tank but did not secure any funding, says that she will continue to grow the company and its programs. “There is a huge imbalance between the amount of time and energy we as human beings invest in our physical well-being versus our mental well-being, and my goal is to create a more multi-dimensional conversation around health and fitness for the mind.”
Breazele adds that the mental health field faces new trends all the time, and this latest one might be arriving at the right moment. “I think there’s a lot of good that can come out of this new idea to help make mental health fitness more accessible.”
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Update 06/15/22: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.