Mental Health Issues are on the Rise: How the Fitness Industry Can Help

Issue 7 - August 2023

Published On


Mental Health Issues are on the Rise: How the Fitness Industry Can Help

Despite the subject becoming less taboo and the cultural conversation becoming more mainstream, mental health challenges are still on the rise. In May, the Surgeon General Advisory declared that there is an “Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation in the United States,” citing that the physical health consequences of poor or insufficient connection include a 29% increased risk of heart disease, a 32% increased risk of stroke, and a 50% increased risk of developing dementia for older adults.

Mental Health, by the Numbers

CDC data indicates that more than 1 in 5 Americans face some kind of mental illness and almost 800 million people suffer from mental health disorders worldwide. And that’s a snapshot of a current moment in time, not accounting for those who’ve yet to experience a circumstantial or acute mental health struggle. It’s been reported that almost 50% of Americans will experience an episode of mental illness in their lives.

Over 42.5 million individuals struggle with anxiety disorders alone — the highest reported mental health issue in the US. Second up is depression with 17.5 million diagnosed in the US and a staggering 322 million people worldwide. Noteworthy: women experience depression at roughly twice the rate of men.

60% of those struggling get no treatment. This is true globally but particularly in the US. In 2019, an estimated 47.6 million adults (nearly 20% of our country — in line with the 1 in 5 statistics) had a mental illness, but only 43% received any kind of mental health care.

The lack of care can result in perhaps the most grim statistic of all: More than 40,000 Americans die annually from suicide.

The Relationship Between Fitness and the Brain

The importance of mental wellbeing has turned many people — perhaps some who would not otherwise be inclined — onto the idea of exercise for the mind and spirit. Even individuals who don’t necessarily enjoy physical fitness (or have physical goals like weight loss) have thrown themselves into yoga, Pilates, running, cycling, boxing, bootcamp, weight lifting and more — all with the goal of improving their mental health and boosting their mood.

In fact, this particular goal has even outpaced all others: mental health has superseded weight loss, with 78% of exercisers considering mental and emotional wellbeing as their top motivation for working out, according to a Mintel study released early in 2022.

The general public is onto something. In fact, according to the John W Brick Foundation’s report, 89% of peer-reviewed research found a positive, statistically significant relationship between exercise/physical activity and mental health. Further, a study just published by the University of South Australia found that “physical exercise may be 1.5 times more effective than traditional counseling or pharmaceutical intervention.”

What Our Industry Can Do

Given the pivotal, crucial role fitness plays in mental health, we should feel an obligation. To quote Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Clients and members are already looking toward us for answers, for help — According to the personal training app Future, 94% of members talk to their coach about nutrition, stress, sleep, and injuries.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re all equipped to tackle such a heady, personal issue for these individuals. For the most part, we’re coaches, not clinical psychologists or licensed therapists. So how do we, as trainers and clubs, provide the support necessary?

Stay Within Scope

There are 4 key areas we’re typically involved in that have a substantial impact on someone’s mental wellbeing: exercise, nutrition, mindfulness practices, and social connection. These are things we can help with! Combine this with an awareness that many, if not most, of our clients are dealing with mental health/wellbeing issues, and it’s a good start.

Do a Thorough Intake

The moment a new client comes into your facility, be sure to include emotional and mental queries in your intake. And the more you learn about these different conditions (and the human experience of each), the better your intake questions will be.

Ravi Sharma, VP at Inspire360, asked the LinkedIn community about what they do when new clients come in. “I think it's super appropriate to standardize mental health questions in your intake, just like physical health questions,” says Milica McDowell, PT, MSPT, DPT, C-EP at Physitrack. “We also ask for preferred pronouns, and other questions to create open lines of communication for our clients.” To Milica’s point, this first point of contact sets a precedent for future open conversations.

This type of inquiry and conversation starter can extend into many facets of your business beyond the intake, as suggested by Richard Earney at Midtown Athletic Clubs in Chicago. “The benefits of movement, wellbeing, and community on mental [and] emotional health need to be embraced through the organization, starting with the employees (especially leaders in the organization), then woven into the DNA of your offering, from marketing voice and tone to the education, training of sales, coaches, etc. to the sales process, onboarding, programming and events,” he says. “Midtown has leaned into this with sales, onboarding, and the coaching program 'Launch,' which is designed to break down barriers, open up dialogue and get to the heart of the 'why' someone has [when they] come through the doors. It starts by asking the right questions!”

Jason Stella from Life Time in Chandler, Arizona adds that even though you ask these questions, the answers may not come out right away commenting that “many people are not going to admit that [their mental health] is a priority when talking to another person or a trainer they just meet,” he says. “Therefore, assessing in a live training setting may be difficult until you build trust and a relationship over time.” Be patient, and keep checking in on your client community.

A Path Toward Mental and Emotional Strength

The historic lack of resources and support for mental health conditions has cost us all dearly, from the suffering itself to its impact on the economy (serious mental illness costs the country more than $190 billion in lost earnings every year), to the ripple effect it has on crime, houselessness, addiction and more.

We know the fitness and wellness industry, as a collective, has the ability to have a revolutionary impact on the mental health of individuals on a global scale. It’s not an overstatement to say that physical fitness can change and save lives. The first step toward healing through fitness is happening right now: with all of us reading about it and talking about it. Pass this on to your teams, your colleagues and your peers. Start a conversation about mental health. Start asking your clients how they’re doing. These seemingly small steps can feel monumental and can set a course-altering change in motion.


Industry Happenings:

Upcoming Events:

  1. canfitpro, August 16-20, 2023, Toronto, Canada
  2. Perform Better 3-Day Functional Training Summit, August 25-27, 2023, Providence, Rhode Island
  3. Dallas MANIA Fitness Pro Convention and Health & Fitness Business Summit, August 25-27, 2023, Dallas, Texas
  4. Disruption Road Tour, August 31, 2023, Edmonds, Washington
  5. World Spinning® Experience, September 7-10, 2023, Miami, Florida. Save $50 with code InspireWSX50
  6. Pilates Empowerment Summit, September 14-17, 2023, Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Save $50 with code InspirePES50
  7. Sibec EMEA, September 26-29, 2023, Sorrento, Italy
  8. Midwest MANIA®, September 29 - October 1, 2023, Rosemont, Illinois


Upcoming Workshops:

  1. Peak Pilates: 20+ workshops in August
  2. Spinning®: 10+ workshops in August
  3. TRX®: 5+ workshops in August
  4. Mike Boyle's CFSC: 2 workshops in August
  5. UJam: 2 workshops in August
  6. Gray Institute: 1 workshop in August
  7. FMT: 8 workshops in September
  8. SoulBody Fitness: 5 workshops in September
  9. Strive Life: 1 workshop in September


Industry News:


Thanks for Reading!

This newsletter was brought to you by Kathie Davis, Peter Davis, Ravi Sharma, Dominique Astorino, and the Inspire360 team.


A Note from Peter & Kathie

The industry is changing rapidly and we are here to help you sift through all the noise and get to the good stuff. Every month, we'll bring you trending topics and the inside scoop that we believe is paramount for fitness professionals to know.

Keep Inspiring,

Peter & Kathie Davis

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