Forget Physique. Mental Health Is the Newest, Hottest Fitness Goal

6 minute read

As 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, at the office, and at the gym.

There are signs that people are now chasing the mental-health benefits of exercise even more than the physical ones. According to a 2022 trends report from online fitness-class scheduling platform Mindbody, the top two reasons that Americans work out are now to reduce stress and feel better mentally. That’s a striking change from even the recent pre-pandemic past; in 2019, controlling weight and looking better were top motivators for many exercisers, according to Mindbody’s report from that year.

Similar trends are appearing in 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 motives for wanting to be active,” compared to before the pandemic, Dunton says. “The reasons are certainly more about stress reduction, anxiety release, and improved sleep.”

The link between physical activity and mental wellness is well established. People have talked about the mood-boosting “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 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 wellness is no longer a happy side effect of a workout routine meant to torch calories or sculpt a six-pack. For many people, it is now the whole point.

“Everything shifts when the world gets turned upside down,” Dunton says. “If one is dealing with sleep issues or feeling very anxious or stressed, that becomes the number-one priority, and the other priorities shift downward.”

Fitness brands have picked up on this change, says Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, an associate professor of history at the New School and author of Fit Nation, a forthcoming book about the history and culture of exercise in the U.S. “You see now a lot more exercise programs marketing themselves as [for] mental health or self care, rather than [with] a competitive, hard-driving ethos,” she says.

Super-intense fitness studios are even adapting to fit the moment. Tone House, which offers athletic conditioning classes that are often called the hardest workouts in New York City, has brought down the intensity lately, says chief operating officer Elvira Yambot. The brand recently began offering intermediate and introductory versions of its signature workout, in recognition that “you may not [always] want to go 500% in an advanced class”—and that lots of people are a little out of shape after being extra sedentary for the last couple years, Yambot says.

Compared to pre-pandemic times, more people are now booking recovery services to help them stay well, such as sessions in Tone House’s NormaTec compression therapy devices, Yambot adds. Both Mindbody and fitness startup ClassPass identified “recovery services”—like massages and sauna sessions—as growing trends in recent reports, and the Wall Street Journal has reported on the number of rest and recovery classes popping up in traditional gyms.

Tone House is considering adding more wellness services—and perhaps even yoga classes—to its schedule, Yambot says. That might be surprising given the brand’s reputation, but “it goes back to a more balanced wellness plan, but also a larger approach to life,” Yambot says. “It’s no longer a trendy term. Work-life balance is something that even New Yorkers are looking to incorporate now, more so than before.” (For the record, Yambot says Tone House never set out to become the hardest workout in New York.)

Does that mean the days of high-intensity, physically punishing workouts 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 go for calming activities like yoga. And Joey Gonzalez, CEO of Barry’s—a brand known for 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’s always a time and a place for different types of exercise.”

That’s probably true, Petrzela says. “What we might 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 weight-lifting and cardio circuits—and an intensity that some people allege has driven them to injury. The workouts are still intense, but the brand’s new CEO recently told TIME he is 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 drastically, Gonzalez says. Each year, Barry’s sponsors a challenge for members: essentially, a push to attend lots of classes over a month-long period. This year, the challenge had a mental health theme. Participants got a free trial of the therapy platform BetterHelp if they signed up, and Barry’s hosted virtual conversations about mental wellness.

A gentler, 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 is not the only thing motivating people.

“Even with meditation and gentler mindfulness practices, there are a lot of people who engage in those to ‘self-optimize’ and be better at other things,” Petrzela says. In American culture, she says, mindfulness is often just another way to work on “improving your hustle, not taking a rest from it.”

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