Sorry, the gym is not therapy

No one can deny it: There’s a really important conversation about mental health to be had in our society.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and slowly but surely, it’s getting a little easier to say “I’m not okay.” We’re finally beginning to chip at a crusty culture that has long refused to take a hard look at how we’re all doing, and actually helping the people who have the fortitude to answer not well. Life’s tough. It always has been. It just gets tougher in different ways we’re not yet equipped to handle.

Naturally, we seek refuge.

People tell me all the time: Thank God for the gym. It’s my therapy.

And oy, I cringe a little inside. Because I’ve been to the gym. And I’ve been to therapy. Both, many times. No, they’re not the same thing, not even close.

Sure, for a lot of folks, what they really mean is that the gym is:

  • stress relief
  • providing cathartic release
  • a welcome shot of endorphins
  • self-care
  • “me time”

…And those things are wonderful! However, there are people who internalize the message that they’re fine not going to a therapist, because they’re committed to fitness and therefore, “health”. But to pretend exercise is a replacement for mental health treatment is misguided at best, and ignorantly dangerous at worst.

I won’t bore you today with the details of my own battles with depression and anxiety, just to say: I’ve had them. Licensed counselors have helped me through grief, piecing back together my tattered self-identity after sexual assault, and walking away from unhealthy relationship patterns.

I’m also not denying a crossover effect. Working on my physical and spiritual health made me much better-equipped to tackle barriers to my mental health. As compartmentalized as we try to keep our lives, it never stays that way. Whenever I find myself sliding back into a dark mental place, I start by working out, eating well, and cleaning up my sleep habits. If that doesn’t help, I’m finding my way to a therapist.

This week I stumbled across this Instagram post from a fitness and wellness blogger I like very much, Taylor of @shethrivesblog:

View this post on Instagram

😬Unpopular opinion: . No, fitness is not your “therapy”. . Before you come for me, hear me out. . 🤔We demonize the act of diving head first into a tub of ice cream to cope with a shit day or soothe a case of the feels, but we celebrate the idea of hitting the gym for the same reasons. . We do this for several reasons, but the primary one is that when taken WITHOUT context, one of those outlets seems “healthier”. . But lest we forget: HEALTH IS CONTEXTUAL. . 💁🏼‍♀️So let’s add that in just for funsies. . When you’re feeling less than great and looking for an outlet, both the ice cream and the gym are playing an IDENTICAL role, and this is important: . To distract, to avoid, to numb, or to otherwise appeal to your primal instinct to RUN from discomfort. When we do this, we tend to reach for something that will light up our reward centers FAST. . This comes in many flavors. Food. Booze. Scrolling. And yes, even fitness. . ✨It gets all the Feel Goods flowing through your body and brain, acting as short term pleasure and reward. . And HEY. There is nothing inherently wrong with this! You are entitled to ALL the pleasure in the world my dear. . ❗️But. If you are using fitness as your sole release, soother, or escape, you are STILL running. . You are not letting yourself process. You are seeking fast reward (ice cream!), and in doing so, avoiding the REAL (uncomfortable) work that your mind and heart are telling you needs attention. . But isn’t a workout a better option than ice cream? Maybe. But maybe not. Again: context. . 😩Are you are taking an already stressed body and piling more stress (exercise!) on top of it, over and over and over again? . This is when your workout can be actively working AGAINST your greater health, no matter how refreshing it feels in the moment. . 💦So keep sweating and moving, but start tuning in to what is driving you. . 💥If it’s because it’s an escape, I implore you to stop running and start showing up for the deeper work. . Whether that’s ACTUAL therapy, working with a coach (hi🙋🏼‍♀️), or just letting yourself process fully, don’t forget that your emotional fitness counts too. . And it requires its OWN work.

A post shared by Taylor Gage | She Thrives® (@itstaylorgage) on

Taylor always drops great “aha” bombs, but she touched on this topic in a way that really got my brain juices going over the week, because of my professional role as the coach who provides access to a gym.

Ethical Boundaries

As a fitness professional, it’s my ethical duty to draw boundaries around my scope. And looking around on Instagram, I think it’s become increasingly easy for folks to think some 25-year-old “life coach” (LOL); the fitness influencer with a slender middle and a million followers; or the bendy yogi mom whose perfectly tanned baby is always with her on the beach in St. Croix, all have it figured out.

What these public figures have figured out is great lighting. How to write a good caption. How to connect with a large audience in some fashion. Sometimes, in isolated instances, they are even professionally qualified to talk about their given topic. But even the best hacks to a more Instagrammable ass, or where to shove your yoni crystal during a New Moon will not replace sitting in the chair of a licensed mental health professional, taking a big deep breath, and telling them you’re having a hard time.

Lest you think me uncaring, I am an empath. It’s part of why I love being a coach. I get high off helping people access movement and live healthier lives. As such, I deeply value empathetic listening in my personal and professional life. It’s just being a good human. And I’ve been on the receiving end: I know what a gift it has been for me when I needed someone to simply witness me in my most painful moments.

Yes, as a coach it is also helpful to understand the complete picture of my athletes’ lives. I can better serve them in my professional capacity with a more complete context. But there are healthy boundaries I have to uphold.

I have to gently guide people to other sources if they tell me:

  • Physical symptoms that need the expert eye of a doctor
  • Mental health symptoms that need the attention of a licensed mental health counselor

And there are several reasons for this.

Use the right tool for the job

First, I do not have the tools to appropriately help this person. While I come to battle armed with a strong sense of empathy, if I don’t encourage them to seek professional help in those realms, I’m essentially another obstacle to someone who has entrusted me to help them.

Momentum is key here: This person has gotten the ball rolling by talking, and that is so crucial and precious. I can best serve them by keeping the ball rolling right on to a qualified professional. They need access to those tools, stat. Not a better back squat.

If someone comes to me and describes a home project for which they clearly need a screwdriver, and I give them a hammer, it doesn’t matter how altruistic my intentions are. I have given them a tool that may help in some fashion but won’t get the job done the way a screwdriver would. The project will suffer for it. They might get frustrated and give up on the project altogether. Or think I’m an idiot for my bad advice.

Setting expectations

Second, if I act as some sort of “catch-all”, I am essentially lying by omission about what it is that I do, and what I cannot do. I can provide the immense benefits that come from moving better, consistently, in appropriate doses, over time. I cannot provide a panacea. I cannot make one younger. I cannot make a cheating spouse come back. I alone cannot solve existential dread, fear of mortality, or loneliness.

Third, if I act as this catch-all, I am doing myself a disservice by devaluing what it is that I do. I get paid for my expertise and approach to fitness. It’s how I eat. In the business realm, generalists do not get paid well. Specialists do. It behooves both of us if I stay in my lane, which does not include a path with a license to practice mental or medical health. It’s the opposite of empathy if I try to act in place of a doctor or a licensed mental health counselor.

I know all this in retrospect because I have personally fucked this up. I’ve missed the signs of someone who needed to be seeing a therapist, not a fitness coach. They walked away a high degree of unsatisfied/disillusioned/furious, and I was left holding my clipboard and good intentions, jaw agape and wondering what the hell just happened. Had I better read the situation, I’d have agreed to be a member of the team that helps to improve this person’s life. Instead, I unknowingly shouldered the burden of expectations I didn’t know were there. A painful lesson learned.

Movement Leaders ≠ spiritual gurus

People often hold their movement coaches and teachers in extremely high esteem, sometimes in a way that borders/ inappropriately crosses over into spiritualism. That’s dangerous. It lacks the context of a teacher being a…. well… human, with innate human flaws, scopes of practice, and legal liabilities.

More than once, I’ve watched as fitness professionals close to me have gingerly and ethically dealt with the mental health crises of their students, including repeated suicide threats. Thankfully no one was hurt. But instead of seeking a therapist, the students just turned to other well-intentioned but misguided teachers who promised healing.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with accessing spiritual and mental expansion through a teacher. But there’s a massive difference between approaching your teacher to say “I’m going through a divorce, and your class is helping me grieve,” and delusionally refusing to seek psychological help because you’re convinced a coach alone can do it for you. And frankly, shame on any coach or teacher who says it can.

Pros: You’re not above seeking help

To my coach and teacher friends, I hope you’ll remember it’s not all on you. Empathetic listening, drawing appropriate boundaries, and being clear about your scope are all incredibly important.

But it’s not enough. Not for the long haul. 

You have to take care of yourself, too. You’ll bear the energetic ups and downs of your students and athletes. Those waves can make it hard to shore up your own boat, but it’s crucial that you do.

I don’t believe you owe it to anyone else to take care of you. I think you just owe it to yourself, and that’s enough.

Don’t think you’re above seeing a therapist because you occupy a helper role. It may feel counterintuitive, but being a person who can ask for appropriate help adds to your credibility.

Walk the walk, talk the talk. Even if it’s on a counselor’s couch.


2 thoughts on “Sorry, the gym is not therapy

  1. Excellent perspective and insightful as always – I appreciate the time and thought you put into your writing. Thank you!

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