“How my personal trainer became the unexpected go-to for emotional support”

For many of us over the last year, our personal trainers have become trusted confidants and even friends. Which is why these women are unloading on their PTs like they would their hairdressers.

The link between exercise and mental health has been long established by this point – we know that moving our bodies tends to make life’s hurdles, stresses and strains seem easier to wade through. In recent times however, taking care of our fitness seems more important than ever which is why some have clung to exercise in order to boost our mood and preserve our sanity – but it’s not just the endorphin rush that’s benefitting our mental health.

During these turbulent times, many of us have relied on personal trainers to not only stay motivated and on track towards our fitness goals, but to also allay our worries, fears and loneliness. The best PTs are interested in their clients’ lives, yet remain judgement-free– a winning combination that can lower our inhibitions and make us feel more comfortable talking about the intimate details of our personal lives – similarly to how one might unload their inner thoughts and worries to their therapist during a session. Particularly, if we already have a close relationship with our personal trainer and are starved of other human contact (as many of us have been since the pandemic began).

However, it’s important to note that a personal trainer should never replace a medical professional or be used as a solution to address serious mental health needs. But similarly to our hairdressers (we miss you guys) they can be one of the best shoulders to lean on when you need to vent, cry or just need a listening ear. 

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Charlotte Jones, 21, who lives in Hertfordshire, has been seeing her personal trainer Harry Chater for almost six months and describes him as her “therapist and PT rolled into one”. Since leaving drama school early last year, Charlotte has struggled financially and found it difficult to find a performing arts job. Harry has been a supportive listener throughout and has even helped her find work in a pub.

When Charlotte was feeling down during a recent session, Harry could tell something wasn’t right and asked her what was up, which opened up the floodgates as Charlotte began sharing her worries and problems. “He made me feel more level-headed and after leaving the gym, I was definitely less stressed,” Charlotte says.

“I always look forward to my sessions. I feel like I’m meeting a friend for a chat – and maybe even a little bit of cheeky gossip – while working out. It’s funny, I never want to go to the gym, but afterwards, my mental state is always in a better place than it was before leaving the house,” she adds.

Having already revealed to Harry intimate information about her weight and physical goals, Charlotte explains that she feels more comfortable talking to him about personal issues – more than she does with other people.

Over time, a close bond with a PT can become “a therapeutic relationship which can include trust, respect and empathy,” says Dr Sarah Dash, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Health and Sport at Victoria University. The rapport and trust built over time – as well as the stress-reduction and mood-boosting benefits of exercise – makes us more relaxed and comfortable sharing private details of our lives with our trainer, she adds.

“Working with a PT builds self-confidence and self-efficacy, which is a person’s belief in their ability to succeed in a certain situation,” Dr Dash continues. “Working with someone towards shared goals forms trust and a sense of ‘togetherness’ that makes people more comfortable about opening up.”

Jessica Rodriguez, 32, from Los Angeles, California, has been seeing her personal trainer up to three times a week for eight years. Like Charlotte, she feels free to open up to him in a way she doesn’t with others. “We speak about everything – from my family and friends, to my love life (or lack thereof) and career goals. Knowing him for so long, and him not judging me at my heaviest, has helped me vent about things to him that I can’t with other friends or family members. It’s a sense of relief to know he’s unbiased and he’ll call me out when I’m wrong.”

When Jessica went without speaking to a sibling for months, her trainer told her a story about “how life is short and we can’t expect family to always agree,” which helped her through it.

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Whitney Simon, 29, from south London, has been training with Ash Dent from Revolution PT three times a week for just over a year. “Before the pandemic, exercising felt like another to-do on my list. Now, I truly look forward to my workouts,” she says. “They’re like another form of therapy that helps me feel centered, strong, and accomplished – but also offers an escape from getting too down on myself when dealing with all this uncertainty.”

During lockdown, Ash has been one of the few people that Whitney was still able to see (over FaceTime), and they talk about everything from their favourite films and their dream places to live, to their futures and where they see themselves in a few years’ time. “I was enjoying it so much that my partner didn’t believe that I was actually working out,” she laughs.

In a year that has intensified emotions of loneliness, PTs have provided much-needed interaction. “Having a strong support network is an important component of mental health and wellbeing, and having a person with whom you feel you can share aspects of your personal life can help to reduce feelings of loneliness or isolation,” says Dr Dash.

Personal trainers themselves can also benefit from close relationships with their clients. For London-based PT Indija Anderson, connecting with clients on a personal level is the “best and most rewarding” part of the job and she relishes the exchange of life advice. Her aim is that a session “doesn’t feel like work for me and it doesn’t feel like training for them”.

With one particular client, whom Indija started working with at the beginning of the first lockdown in 2020 and has since been training four times a week, they talk about everything including, “periods, relationships, dating apps, food and wellbeing”. When her client shares her two cents on Indija’s love life and relationships, she feels comfortable enough with her client to respond “as you do when squabbling with friends”.

“As personal trainers, the people who learn from us can give it back as well,” Indija adds. “I really appreciate being able to openly and honestly talk about relationships and that kind of stuff with clients.”

We all need someone to speak to without judgement, and Jessica believes that “trainers can be an ear for those who may not have anyone to talk to or confide in”. Although she emphasises that her trainer “has never claimed to be a professional therapist and always encourages his clients to speak to a medical professional if they feel it’s needed.” In fact, Jessica currently sees a professional therapist for her mental health and values them both equally.

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While PTs can provide social support, a trusting relationship, structure and routine during COVID-19, it goes without saying that anyone with mental health issues should seek help from a mental health professional. Moreover, exercise, even if guided by a trained professional, shouldn’t be deemed a ‘stand-alone’ solution to mental health concerns, says Dr Dash.

“Training with a PT does not address underlying thought processes that can contribute to mental health concerns, which is something that could be addressed by a trained therapist,” she adds.

“Mental health is complex, and it’s important to take a multidisciplinary approach to managing it. This may mean including a PT and therapist as part of a holistic, team-based approach to supporting our mental health and wellbeing.”

So, while lockdown may prevent you from training and chatting with your PT face-to-face, you can still meet regularly via Zoom calls or FaceTime to continue training – and loading off. 

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS’ list of mental health helplines and organisations here. Additionally, you can ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.

For confidential support, you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email [email protected].

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IMAGE: Getty 

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