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What Can Personal Trainers Do to Help Clients with Mental Health Problems?

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People who decide to work as personal trainers, or in other fitness-related capacities, tend to be people who care a lot about the well-being of others. If you are studying to become a fitness instructor of any kind, for instance, doing a fitness diploma course like those offered by OriGym, or you are already working in the field, then chances are you are already committed to helping all kinds of different people to meet their physical health goals. However, there is actually a lot that people working with clients for physical training can do to help support their mental health, too.

Mental health issues come in a huge variety of types, and also present in different ways, and nobody expects a fitness professional to also be an expert on mental health. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t things that they can do and take into account that can have a profound effect on supporting other things the client may be doing to manage a mental health condition, or that there aren’t good reasons for fitness professionals to take an interest in mental health and psychology as an overall topic.

Making the first meeting reassuring

One of the most basic things that personal trainers can try to do to help their clients who may be facing mental health obstacles, particularly while they are still getting to know them and may not be aware of how they currently feel about their body, their energy levels, nutrition, and exercise, is to consider how they can avoid saying or doing things that may have a negative impact.

For some people, particularly those with anxiety disorders, even meeting with a trainer or stepping foot in a gym is a terrifying prospect and one that they may have had to steel themselves to do. This can be exacerbated by preconceived ideas they may have about what the fitness environment and the people who work in it may be like. For someone new to fitness, someone who feels that they don’t have the type of physique, the stamina, the muscle power, or even the desire for exercise they associate with regular gym enthusiasts or fitness professionals, getting started with a trainer can be daunting enough, even without the added issues caused by having social anxiety or other anxiety issues.

It is really important that trainers never lose sight of how new clients may be feeling about the whole process. It is easy when one spends every working day in an environment to forget that that environment may be far from mundane to someone else. Always try and see the first appointment or the tour of the gym through the eyes of someone with no experience of your ‘home turf’ and who may well be worried about things that you may know to be wrong, like that everyone in the gym will be staring at them and judging them, or that everyone except them will look like a fitness model and perform like a top athlete.

Understanding the effort

When someone is feeling good, they can achieve a lot. When someone is feeling a little bit demotivated, a trainer can be the person to push them through it and help them dig deeper and find the motivation to achieve what they can on their best days every day. But when someone is in the grip of something like depression, it isn’t as simple as just needing to be told to try harder. 

An intense lack of personal motivation which accompanies depression already tends to leave people feeling guilty about all the things they just don’t have the energy or will to do, and so the approaches that you might use to help get someone moving on a normal ‘lazy day’ will actually just make them feel even worse. Understand that a client who is depressed may well be coming to you because they hope that physical exercise and the improvements to their self-esteem that should come with training will help with their mental health and that it probably took a lot of effort for them to drag themselves to the gym while they are feeling this way. 

Learn how to spot when someone needs tough love or a pep talk to get their energy up and get them training at their best, and when someone is pushing themselves to their own current limits just to be there, and adjust how you handle the training session accordingly. 

Goal setting

Goal setting is something that fitness professionals know how to do very well because it is extremely valuable in helping someone to improve their fitness, lose weight, increase their performance in a sport, and all of the other things people go to trainers to help them with. If you have a client who has spoken to you about their mental health, then you may be able to find ways to incorporate aspects of managing their condition into the goals you set with them and help them to work towards. 

There are all kinds of ways that you can do this, depending on the specifics of the situation. As an example, you may have somebody who wants to start using yoga as a way to relax and help with anxiety or stress. You can set goals with them that are geared towards bringing a yoga session into their personal daily routine, such as to do a 20-minute yoga set every evening before bed. Thinking about the best strategies that you can use with a client to improve their general well-being, which includes their mental health, through their training can help to inform the goals you can agree with them.

It is well documented that exercise can help people who are struggling with their mental health, whether it is a diagnosed condition that they are trying to learn how to manage, or just that they are going through a high-stress period in their lives and it is taking a toll on them. As a personal trainer, you can help them get all of the benefits of improving their fitness and being active, without accidentally having a negative impact, by learning how to understand the needs of people with common mental health issues.

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Image credit: Freepik


Alicia Saville did her degree in psychology at the University of Edinburgh. She has an ongoing interest in mental health and well-being. 

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