Many of the people in your gym believe that because they feel good physically, their mental health is also good.
They may think things like, ‘The gym is my de-stress time or my therapy. I don’t need to talk about my feelings with a professional.’
This idea that physical fitness translates into strong mental health is very common. But according to Dr. Christina Migliara, physical fitness isn’t the be-all and end-all.
Migliara is a licensed mental health professional with TheraFit. She has 20 years of experience in mental health, specializing in relationships, trauma and addictions. She’s also a CrossFit Level 2 coach and owner of CrossFit Tailwinds in Jacksonville, FL. Her gym includes an entire wellness center for everything from nutrition to mental health therapy.
Migliara explained that while working out is a great tool to improve mental health, it’s just one tool.
“That’s a large misconception, particularly with people in the gym space,” she said. “While the gym is therapeutic, we want to differentiate between a therapeutic tool and therapy.”
When Working Out Is... Counterproductive?
Migliara says that, depending on what’s going on with the person, going to the gym could potentially be counterproductive. If they’re pretending physical fitness is all they need to overcome mental health challenges, they’re confusing the issue.
She further explained that, when used in the right way, exercise promotes healthy hormones and mind-body connection that accelerate healing. However, when used in a misguided way, they can keep people in a state of constant “activation.”
For example, she said, “Going to the gym is a stress. And if we’re just piling into the bucket of stress, then we’re doing all of the activating but not enough of the rest and digest.”
Essentially, this means ending up in a place where you’re all sympathetic nervous system all the time. You’re neglecting the (equally-as-important) parasympathetic nervous system in the process. So you’re never actually getting out of that “activation state” and recovering properly.
In other words, the gym becomes a place of avoidance. It’s not a therapeutic tool, but a weapon.
Five Other Mental Health Myths
Physical fitness translating to mental stability isn’t the only myth out there in your gym, Migliara explained. So today, she’s aiming to expose other myths. The goal is for people to understand the importance of actively working on mental health.
1. Therapy Doesn’t Always Equal Medication.
This is a big one, Migliara said. And it stops people from pursuing what might be very helpful for them. She explained the myth:
“If you go to therapy, you’re automatically going to be put on medication. There’s this equation between therapy and medication.”
And this barrier is especially applicable to gym-goers. Because understandably, many health-conscious people shy away from the thought of being medicated.
The truth is, therapy doesn’t necessarily mean medication.
“We use different theoretical approaches to work through the concerns people are facing without medication,” said Migliara. In fact, she utilizes a largely habits-based approach to improving mental health.
“We talk a lot about how you’re sleeping, how you’re eating, exercising, socializing, getting time to yourself to de-stress. Those types of things that have nothing to do with taking medication,” she said.
With that said, Migliara said she’s not anti-medication. Although it’s not the first go-to, she believes that it can be helpful in some cases.
With her clients specifically, Migliara focuses on the 7 Mental Health pillars. They include quiet time, exercise, nutrition, sleep and recovery, getting outside in nature, socialization and hobbies. All seven pillars are needed to build what Migliara calls a “healthy mental health hygiene routine.”
2. Therapy Is Only For People Who’ve Experienced Trauma.
“People think they only need to go to therapy when there’s a problem. When they’re in this crisis,” Migliara said.
Oftentimes, people think therapy is reserved for things like PTSD, eating disorders or abusive relationships. This couldn’t be further from the truth, explained Migliara.
“Therapy is, in fact, for everyone,” she said. “And what we actually want to do is get to a place where we normalize therapy just like we do going for your physical check-ups.”
Just like with training at the gym, you don’t only train when you’re unfit. Similarly, you don’t only seek nutrition coaching when you’re unhealthy. Look at mental health the same way. It should be something you constantly work on and maintain.
As Migliara says, it’s “not always allowing it to get to full blown crisis before you deal with it.”
3. Mental Health Coaching Is Only For High-Level Athletes.
Everyone can benefit from improving their mindset. Because, as Migliara explained, everyone has “barriers that might be holding them back.”
For example, most athletes aren’t headed to The CrossFit Games or struggling with staying calm on the competition floor. However, consider the athlete in your gym that struggles with body dysmorphia.
She’s constantly comparing herself to The Games athletes, agonizing over every social media picture. Instead of celebrating her progress in your gym, she’s robbing herself of the joy of her accomplishments.
Working with a mental health coach on reshaping her mindset could go a long way. It could improve her actual performance in the gym and more importantly, her relationship with herself. Ultimately, being mentally stronger would increase her overall happiness throughout her fitness journey.
4. Poor Mental Health Is The Same As Mental Illness.
It’s actually not uncommon for people to think, ‘I’m not mentally ill. So I must be mentally fit.’ And therefore, they believe there’s no need to dig any deeper.
“People think mental health equals mental illness,” Migliara said. And once again, this simply isn’t true.
Similar to CrossFit’s Sickness-Wellness-Fitness continuum, mental health can be measured the same way.
“Mental health is just looking at where we stand on that continuum, just like we do with our physical health,” Migliara said.
This allows your gym community to build a line of defense against the opposite end of the continuum.
5. With A Good Support Circle, There’s No Need For A Professional.
Many people believe that a good social circle or close family members replace the need for a mental health professional.
‘I talk to my mom and a handful of friends all the time about what’s going on in my life. Why would I pay to speak to to a professional?’
Migliara explained that this isn’t an either-or situation. Talking with friends at the gym or family can be incredibly beneficial. They’re a crucial part of your support network.
They’re a great “protective factor,” she explained. But this doesn’t mean you might not gain other insights and tools from a mental health coach.
The truth is, a therapist is a great third party, who can offer tools your friends might not be able to.
“Sometimes we want to talk about things, and we might be a little bit embarrassed or ashamed,” said Migliara. “It’s nice to have that neutral person that we can go to who will be unbiased and who will give us a different perspective.”
She added, “And (mental health professionals) are trained with specific tools and strategies the common person is not likely to have. (So they) can further equip you in your tool belt. Kind of like the difference between someone going to the gym and getting professional coaching versus someone who goes to the globo-gym and does their own thing.”
What This Means For You As A Gym Owner:
Now that we’ve covered some of the myths, we’ll dive deeper in the next three parts of this series.
Part 2 will delve into gym owner mental health. We’ll provide tips for you to prevent burnout and improve your mental health. Part 3 will explore what you can do to help ensure you have a mentally-fit staff. And Part 4 will provide practical strategies to help your clients with their mental health.
Check out Mental Health Series Part 2 here: How Gym Owners Can Avoid Burnout
Disclaimer: “I am a Licensed Mental Health Professional. However, this is not therapeutic advice. The content of this message is intended for educational purposes only and not a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified professional with any questions you may have regarding your mental or physical well-being. Further, some content in this message may be sensitive and cause triggering. Never disregard professional mental advice or delay in seeking help because of something you have heard or read in this message.”