Lots of women are declaring exercise the new therapy. We asked psychologists when workouts can help you cope with emotional problems—and when they can't.

By By Andrea Stanley
Updated: November 03, 2017
Photo: Shutterstock

When Sandra shows up to her spin class, it's not for the state of her skinny jeans-it's for her state of mind. "I went through a divorce and my whole world turned upside down," says the 45-year-old from New York City. "I tried to go to traditional therapy, but I found that going to a spin class and crying in a dark room while on a bike was much more therapeutic for me than talking to a stranger."

Sandra is part of a growing tribe of people who prefer to sweat it out-not talk it out-when it comes to working through their emotional woes. "When I first started my fitness program, I would say that people came for the physical benefits, but now they come for the mental benefits just as much, if not more," says Patricia Moreno, creator of the intenSati method, a workout series that begins with a mindful breathing exercise and visualization practice before launching into high-intensity cardio. And after something bad happens (a divisive political event, natural disaster, tragic occurrence, personal stressor), Moreno always notices an uptick in attendance. (See: Lots of Women Turned to Yoga After the Election)

Exercise may be the new therapy, but can it really handle all your emotional baggage?

Exercise As Therapy

The wonders of working out are nothing new. Stacks of studies show that exercise boosts endorphins and other feel-happy hormones. Some of the latest research in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association shows that working out for half an hour in a group class setting decreases stress. A separate group of researchers published findings in the journal PLOS ONE indicating that yoga can help alleviate depression.

What is new? The crop of fitness classes focused on helping you find inner-not thinner-peace. Workout studios like The Skill Haus offer #bmoved, a physical meditation session, while others such as Circuit of Change offer classes that aim to give you a mental cleansing.

And it's not just another trendy thing (à la green juice, kale, Beyoncé-inspired vegans). Many psychologists say it works and are happy that people are tapping into fitness as an easy-to-access (and often cheaper) mental health resource, especially at a time when many of us need a little mood boost. According to a new survey by the American Psychological Association, more than half of Americans feel we're at the lowest point in history and name the future of the country as the thing they worry about the most, ranking higher than even money or career (although those stressors aren't far behind).

"Exercise is a great way for many of us to deal with crisis or stress," says Ellen McGrath, Ph.D., a psychologist in New York City. "Most of us feel better after a workout and that allows us to move into the mindset of being problem solvers and to see solutions we did not see before." To experience the best effects of an exercise-induced emotional lift, you should work out for 15 minutes or more and break a sweat, she says.

Another sweat reward: Spinning, punching, lifting, running, and any other form of fitness can be a more inviting approach to emotional self-care for those who aren't feeling therapy. "I tried seeing a shrink and it didn't work for me," says Lauren Carasso, 35, from White Plains, NY. "Maybe it was the wrong therapist or wrong time in my life, but it made me uncomfortable. The gym, however, is a place where I find comfort. Once, at work, a client was so mean to me I was in tears. I had to leave the office I was so hysterical. It was in the middle of the day and I didn't know what to do or who to call - it wasn't like I could have just waltzed into a therapist's office on a whim. I went to a dance cardio class and felt better. Working out is my therapy."

The Therapist Will See You Now

But there are times when you shouldn't sweat it. Literally. "While exercise is a phenomenal way to reduce physiological arousal, many people still need professional therapy to let go of anger, stress, anxiety-and that's okay," says Leah Lagos, Psy.D., a sport and performance therapist in New York City. And to be clear, seeing a therapist has some unique benefits. "Exercise is one of the best mood managers we have available, but it isn't necessarily a 'fix' for whatever feels stressful," McGrath says. Therapy, on the other hand, teaches problem-solving strategies and helps you tackle lingering issues in a more long-term way, as well as allows you to identify patterns so you can break bad habits.

Ideally, you'd have a mix of both, especially during particularly hard times. "Exercise and therapy, in combination, are a powerful catalyst for change," Lagos says. Some signs you should try therapy: "If you don't feel like yourself for extended periods of time, you're abusing drugs, alcohol, food, or sex to cope, you don't feel calm after exercise, something traumatic has happened to you, or anger is impairing your health or relationships, you need help from a professional," Lagos says. Not just the personal trainer kind.

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