Mental health benefits are getting Americans back in the gym

aThe COVID-19 pandemic continues to worsen Burnt Overwhelmed by fatigue, many people yearn to take a deep breath and find a more balanced approach to life HomepageIn the DeskAnd in the gym.

There is evidence that people are now seeking the mental health benefits of exercise more than the physical benefits. according to Trends Report 2022 From the online fitness class scheduling platform Mindbody, the two top reasons Americans work are to reduce stress and feel better mentally. This is a startling change even from the recent past predated by the pandemic; In 2019, better weight control and appearance were the top motivating factors for many exercisers, according to Mindbody’s Report from that year.

Similar trends are emerging in the scientific literature, says Genevieve Dunton, chair of health behavior research at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine. “People report slightly different motivations for wanting to be active,” Dunton says, compared to before the pandemic. “The reasons definitely have more to do with stress reduction, releasing anxiety, and sleep improvement. “

The relationship between physical activity and mental wellness is well established. People talked about the mood-boosting ‘runner’s high’ For at least half a centuryand countless studies – including One Donton conducted during the pandemic – confirmed it Exercise can improve mental health And the mood, maybe even Preventing or reducing symptoms of depression for some people. But the pandemic appears to have ushered in a cultural shift in the fitness world, as in many others: Mental wellness is no longer a happy side effect of a calorie-burning workout routine or sculpting six packs. For a lot of people, that’s the point now.

“Everything changes when the world is turned upside down,” Dunton says. “If one is dealing with sleep problems or feels distressed Worry Or stressing it out, priority becomes number one, and other priorities turn down.”

Fitness brands have picked up on this change, says Natalia Mehlmann Petzila, associate professor of history at The New School and author of Fit Nation An upcoming book on the history and culture of exercise in the United States “Now sees more exercise programs marketing themselves as [for] Mental health or self-care, not [with] It’s a competitive and demanding spirit.”

Even ultra-high intensity fitness studios adapt to fit the moment. Tone House, which offers sports conditioning classes often called The hardest workout in New York CityTensions have been lowered recently, says Elvira Yambut, chief operating officer. The brand recently began offering intermediate and introductory versions of its signature exercise, acknowledging that “you may not [always] You want to be 500% in an advanced class”—and that a lot of people are getting a bit bad after they’ve been Little extra sitting for the past two yearsYambut says.

Compared to pre-pandemic times, more people are now booking recovery services to help them stay healthy, such as sessions in Tone House’s NormaTec acupressure machines, Yambot adds. Mindbody and fitness company ClassPass both select “recovery services”—such as massage services and sauna sessions—Trends growing in Recent ReportsWall Street magazine Reported About the number of rest and recovery classes that have appeared in traditional gyms.

Tone House is considering adding more wellness services — and possibly yoga classes — to its schedule, Yambot says. That may come as a surprise given the brand’s reputation, but “it’s down to a more balanced health plan, but it’s also a bigger approach to life,” Yambut says. “It is no longer a common term. Work-life balance is something that even New Yorkers are looking to incorporate now, more than before.” (For the record, Yambot says Tone House never set out to become the toughest workout in New York.)

Does this mean the days of high intensity physical training are over? not necessarily. According to ClassPass’ Fitness Trends 2021 Report60% of people prefer high-energy workouts on stressful days, compared to 40% of those who engage in soothing activities such as yoga. And Joey Gonzalez, CEO of Barry’s — a brand known for its hardcore boot camp classes — says some of his studios are already seeing higher attendance rates now than they were before the pandemic. “I don’t think there will be that big of a shift from high impact to low impact,” he says. “There is always a time and place for different types of exercise.”

That may be true, says Petrzilla. “What we may be seeing is not a change in the actual exercise methods people engage in, but more a change in their approaches to them,” she explains. Takes High intensity fitness programwhich is best known for workouts that feature exercises like Olympic weightlifting and cardio circuits — and the intensity some people do. Caused them to get injured. Rehearsals are still intense, but the new CEO of the brand recently told TIME that it is Committed to making CrossFit a healthy companyculturally speaking.

At Barry’s, mental health has also become a higher priority for the brand, even if its core offerings haven’t changed drastically, Gonzalez says. Each year, Barry sponsors a challenge for members: basically, an impulse to attend a lot of classes over the course of an entire month. This year, the challenge was on the topic of mental health. Participants got a free trial of the BetterHelp therapy platform if they signed up, and Barry’s hosted virtual conversations about mental health.

A gentle and slower pandemic-era mentality – with a greater focus on mental health – may have softened the edges of some of the toughest workouts of the moment. But Petrzilla suspects the new dedication to mental health isn’t the only thing motivating people.

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

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write to Jamie Ducharme at jamie.ducharme@time.com.