Mental Health & Fitness: Stress, Grief, Depression


Doing a mental check with your clients, will help their overall fitness program. Sometimes, we all get run down by the day to day madness. I have often found using a fitness consulting session, where we are already evaluating progress, is a great time for this to occur.

As Fitness Professionals, we drive home the importance of physical fitness and nutrition into our clients, every single day. Not only do we preach this to our clients, we grind these two essential elements of wellbeing, into every part of our daily lives.

We know physical fitness and nutrition are both vital to living a healthy lifestyle.

Let’s pause for a second.

When was the last time you spoke with your clients about their mental health? Or took a second to evaluate your own?

According to the World Health Organization, “mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”

The WHO stresses that mental health “is not just the absence of mental disorder.”

Mental health is just as important as our physical health and it is often our last priority.

How can mental health be a priority, when you have a day crammed full of “must-get-dones”.

By the end of the day, three additional days’ worth of tasks were added and you didn’t even put a dent into the never-ending to-do list.

Sound familiar?

The next day begins and the process starts over…and we repeat…and repeat…

And this is just a regular day balancing: work deadlines, meetings, appointments, kids’ afterschool activities, random chores and other daily responsibilities.

Our days are filled to the max. Every second is accounted for, and even if we happen to find some free time, it’s immediately tagged to be used for another task.

Bottom line…we live in a constant state of stress, with little to no regard for our mental health.

Is all stress bad?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, a certain level of stress is normal and effective. Stress can motivate you to prepare or perform for things such as an important deadline, or job interview. Stress can even save your life by giving you the fight-or-flight response during dangerous situations.

However, we have also learned that stress kills!

Long term stress can suppress immune, digestive, sleep, and reproductive systems, which may cause them to stop working normally.

Long Term Stress Can Also Cause:

  • Heart Disease
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Other Illnesses, (cold, flu)
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

According to the National Institute on Occupational Safety & Health, the workplace is the number one cause of life stress.

The CDC reports 110 million people die every year as a direct result of stress. That is seven people every 2 seconds.

Doing a mental check with your clients, will help their overall fitness program. Sometimes, we all get run down by the day to day madness. I have often found using a fitness consulting session, where we are already evaluating progress, is a great time for this to occur.

I’ll mention this before going any further, because there is always one “Negative Nancy” out there who has to make some ridiculous comment.

As a Personal Trainer or Fitness Professional, does that make you a psychiatrist?

Of course not.

However, as a Personal Trainer or Fitness Professional, are you able to tell if your client is more stressed than normal?


Are you in the position to offer some additional fitness prescriptions to assist them?


And worst case, are you in a position to suggest they should speak to their doctor if you notice a long-term change in their behavior?

Yes. Ofcourse you are!

This goes for you as well. Between work, family, relationships and all other responsibilities, you give all day long and it can feel like, you have nothing left of yourself at the end of the day.

Don’t let yourself get to this point!

Invest in time to unwind. It can be as simple as laying out by the pool, going for a walk, reading a book, going out to see a movie, getting a massage, etc. Dedicate sometime each week for you.

And if you need more time, take it!

One of my wife’s favorite quotes is “You can’t pour from an empty cup”. This is 100% accurate.

ANY exercise has many benefits for Mental Health such as, reducing adrenaline and cortisol levels, which are the bodies “stress hormones”, as well as stimulating the production of endorphins, which are the bodies “feel good chemicals”. Some forms of exercise can be even more beneficial.

If your client shows up for a session and looks completely tapped out, check in with them. If they confirm they are completely physically and emotionally drained, consider changing up what you had planned for them today.

Muscular Meditation is any repetitive movement that can be performed at a low impact level such as walking, jogging, swimming, etc. Just 20 minutes of Muscular Meditation can reduce stress, due to the rhythmic movement activating the large muscle groups.

For those of you that love your treadmills, and stationary bikes…walk away from the gym equipment and head outdoors. A study in the April 2019, Frontiers in Psychology, stated, “spending just 20 minutes outdoors, connecting with nature, can help lower stress hormone levels.”

Another option (that can also be done outdoors) is any form of “Breathing Exercise”. Breathing exercises reduces stress. Yoga, and Tai Chi are both prime examples that use flowing physical movements with breathing.

If Yoga and Tai Chi are not appealing to you or your client, you can suggest something a little more intense, such as Pilates or even Kickboxing.

As a Personal Trainer, you are not expected to be an expert in every single form of exercise. However, having these tools in your repertoire is the difference between being a good trainer and great trainer. I would suggest you pick at least one, Yoga, Tai Chi, Pilates or Kickboxing and be able to utilize this form of exercise, for this purpose.

At this point, we are talking about being overwhelmed with the day to day. Let’s take it a step further when things go very wrong, such as tragedy strikes.

Life gives us a great deal to be thankful for, but life also takes from us as well.

A good friend of mine passed away suddenly. It was a shock to all of us. The expression “it feels like I’ve been hit by a truck” about summed it up.

While grief is an emotional response to loss, it can have physical effects as well. According to Dr. Maureen Malin, stress from grief can “affect the whole body and all organ systems, and especially the immune system.”

Grief doesn’t just result from the loss of a loved one, it can be caused by losing financial stability, selling the family home, retirement, etc.

There is no timetable for grief and everyone grieves differently. Grief is a roller-coaster with ups and downs. If you or your client is experiencing a loss, understand each day can be completely different. There are good days and bad days. While it does get easier to move forward. You never move on. Because of this, grief can lead to Depression.

According to the Mayo Clinic “Depression affects how you feel, think and behave and can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems. You may have trouble doing normal day-to-day activities, and sometimes you may feel as if life isn’t worth living.”

According to the CDC, in general‚ about 1 out of every 6 adults will have depression at some time in their life. Depression affects about 16 million American adults every year.

Symptoms of Depression include:

  • Feeling sad or anxious often or all the time
  • Not wanting to do activities that used to be fun
  • Feeling irritable‚ easily frustrated‚ or restless
  • Having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Waking up too early or sleeping too much
  • Eating more or less than usual or having no appetite
  • Experiencing aches, pains, headaches, or stomach problems that do not improve with treatment
  • Having trouble concentrating, remembering details, or making decisions
  • Feeling tired‚ even after sleeping well
  • Feeling guilty, worthless, or helpless
  • Thinking about suicide or hurting yourself

It is suggested if you or your client are experiencing these symptoms for more than two weeks, reach out to a medical professional (except for thoughts of suicide or hurting yourself…reach out for help immediately). I, however, suggest you reach out sooner. If you are Googling “when to get help for depression?”, do it now.

Research has shown exercise helps to fight depression. Dr. Michael Craig Miller, stated “For some people it works as well as antidepressants, although exercise isn’t enough for someone with severe depression.” While the exact length of time, or intensity you need to exercise to alleviate depression systems is unclear, within a few weeks of exercise, patients begin seeing improvement.

If you or your clients are expressing depression, it is vital you keep up your workout routine. It might mean switching it up with more “Breathing Exercises” or “Muscular Meditation Workouts”, but do NOT, stop altogether.

Ultimately, stress is a part of life. We have to learn to manage it effectively. Taking time for yourself to decompress is essential. Don’t let yourself hit rock bottom before you start making changes. You shouldn’t feel guilty about stealing some time for yourself. You will be in a happier, healthier mindset to take care of the people that matter most.

Dr. Bell

CEO of the IFPA

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