Even before anxiety and depression became a public health crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic, the state of mental health was in pretty dire straits, particularly in the United States.
An astounding 19 percent of adults in the U.S. reported having a mental illness before the novel coronavirus affected daily life on a global scale, according to research conducted by Mental Health America. And 40 million American adults experience anxiety, per the Anxiety & Depression Association of America.
So, where does that leave personal trainers and fitness business owners, who are sometimes the only health professionals people see on a regular basis, but who also need to stay within their scope of practice?
For starters, that last part is important. Fitness professionals need to understand and respect their scope of practice, or what they’re allowed to do and say based on their credentials. You wouldn’t want a therapist creating a workout program for one of your clients, right? Likewise, you shouldn’t give mental health advice during your sessions, or worse, diagnose a mental health problem.
“Fitness professionals should create a safe and sustainable environment that supports their clients’ physical and mental well-being,” says Beth Jordan, CPT, a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise (ACE). “While we may notice that a client is struggling and have a discussion with them about what's going on, it’s not our role to determine whether they have a mental health condition.” Still, you can—and should—encourage them to seek proper professional help, she says.
Some signs of anxiety and depression that you might notice as a personal trainer:
A client seems lethargic or unmotivated
They’re less responsive than usual
They regularly cancel sessions or classes
They have trouble sleeping
This is why it’s important to have a network of therapists you can refer clients to. If you’re not sure where to start, attend industry conferences to connect with other professionals in the health space, Jordan says. LinkedIn can also help with this. Reach out to relevant experts, share some information about yourself and schedule some time to chat to ensure you’re comfortable referring clients to them.
“Fitness professionals should create a safe and sustainable environment that supports their clients’ physical and mental well-being.”
Also worth noting: Research links exercise to a reduced risk of anxiety and depression; in part, thanks to feel-good hormones and decreased inflammation. So, keep these guidelines in mind, and you can help your clients through a tough time, while staying within your scope of practice.
01. Remember that harder isn’t better
People’s needs are different in hard times—and your ability to stay in-tune with this could make or break your success as a trainer or coach.
“Many people are realizing that previously popular mantras like 'harder is better' aren’t sustainable and just don’t feel good,” says Donna Cennamano, NASM-CPT, a personal trainer, meditation coach and CycleBar instructor. (Related reading: The new rules of training clients during the pandemic.)
In the current climate of isolation and stress, both Jordan and Cennamano believe exercise needs to be a nourishing, empowering experience. “We want to create an environment where people enjoy movement and celebrate wellness long-term,” says Cennamano. Bottom line: Gone are the days of “no pain, no gain.”
02. Level up your listening
Good listening skills and empathy are crucial to your success as a trainer. Many certifying organizations even dedicate a portion of their exam to active listening, which means:
Minimizing interruptions while a client speaks
Using body language (like eye contact and nodding) to signal your interest
Asking questions to foster trust and rapport
Notably, this is different from assuming you know exactly what every client needs, which to be super clear, you don’t. Your clients are the experts on themselves, so listen to them to create a program that’s truly safe and sustainable, Jordan says.
“If challenges with mental health come up in a session, participate through active listening and compassion,” says Cennamano. But again, if clients bring up specific diagnoses or seek mental health advice, encourage them to speak to a more appropriate expert.
03. Help clients build self-efficacy
Self-efficacy is a belief in your ability to accomplish things, and people with high levels of self-efficacy are more resilient to setbacks and stress.
Exercise is a great way to build self-efficacy, but to foster this belief among your clients, you’ll need to build workouts that are challenging but achievable. Essentially, you want to encourage “wow, I did it!” vibes at the end of your session, which means developing workouts that are neither boring nor impossible.
Your motivation style matters, too. On tough days or difficult sessions, accentuate your client’s strengths instead of emphasizing the things that need work. “Keep in mind the strides they’ve made up to that point,” Cennamano says.
04. Encourage a mind-body connection
“It's important to create an inclusive environment where fitness is accessible and provides an outlet for release,” Cennamano says. “Give participants the space to do more than just move, but to feel.”
A few ways to do this: Invite clients to observe their inner dialogue throughout a workout, and periodically ask how they’re feeling (physically and mentally) during a session. From there, you can help them shift the narrative by suggesting affirmations like “I can do this” or “I am strong and capable.” Or, encourage them to consider whether they need to push through or take a break.
05. Consider continued education
If you want to expand your ability to support your clients’ mental and emotional wellbeing, consider additional certifications and credentials. “Yoga teachers, for example, are trained to teach breathing techniques and meditation to help their clients reduce stress,” Jordan says. Meanwhile, a health coach certification (a program ACE offers) can provide tools that help your clients reframe their thinking and adopt healthy behaviors that improve their mental and physical wellness. (Read more: How to become and yoga instructor and 6 reasons to invest in your practice.)
Remember: Fitness is important, but there are many other aspects of health. And the more exercise professionals can craft an experience that connects the mind, body and spirit, the more people will benefit, Cennamano says.
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