The Key Role of Exercise in Mental Health

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and there’s no better time to reinforce the importance of exercise in emotional well-being.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, making this the perfect time to remind people—and reinforce the notion—that exercise can be key to supporting mental health.

We know, for example, that gym visits are a tool for building psychological resilience. Fitness facilities provide locations in which members can explore a range of movement options that deliver a high sense of control and personal agency. With every visit, your members reap the immediate reward of a more positive self-regard and an enhanced mood. In line with this idea, a recent survey found that 78% of exercisers now say that “mental and emotional well-being” is their top reason for exercising.

Each member’s visit also helps advance their fitness level. This matters because high levels of fitness protect our mental health. In fact, a person’s fitness level has a dose-dependent relationship with their risk of mental health disorders. Compared to those with high fitness, those with low or medium levels of fitness incur a 47% and 23% higher risk of mental health disorders, respectively.

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In addition to those benefits, clubs can provide members with opportunities to connect to others and build their social network, helping to avoid loneliness—a common pandemic-associated issue. This is more important than ever, as remote work is more common. Clubs can play a part in helping members recover from the impact of COVID-era restrictions.

How Clubs Are Responding

Many clubs are actively embracing the message that exercise offers clear mental health benefits. They are also offering more recovery and relaxation options, with quieter areas for more privacy.

Fitness facilities are adding programming that helps their members find a calmer state of mind. Although yoga has long been included in group exercise rotations, new classes include mindfulness meditation, guided body scans, and breathwork.

Operators are also improving the relevance of their messaging by categorizing exercise as a strategy for optimal self-care. By reminding us that workouts enhance mood, these messages appeal to those who are eager to ease the symptoms of anxiety and depression.

We’ve also seen a focus on the choice of exercise, which helps members view workouts as a personal decision; something we do for ourselves. At a time when self-efficacy proves more difficult, choice puts the member in the driver’s seat on their path to a healthier lifestyle. Further marketing efforts are needed to help inactive individuals take the first steps to realize their full potential.

Building Your Mental Health Messaging and Programming

If you’re ready to amplify your advocacy for the inclusion of exercise in mental health intervention, the IHRSA Foundation offers guidance on how to maintain this message at your facility. Working with the John W. Brick Mental Health Foundation, the IHRSA Foundation has developed best practices for promoting the relationship between exercise and mental health. My team at Matrix saw an opportunity to enhance our total solutions promise via a free support package available at, which we modeled after the IHRSA Foundation’s suggestions.

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The IHRSA Foundation also published a survey of fitness professionals, Perspectives on Supporting Mental Health & Well-being in Health & Fitness Facilities: A Survey of Fitness Professionals. This helps us understand their perspectives on the role of fitness centers in optimizing mental health and well-being, readiness to address mental health, and current practices addressing mental wellness.

“We've had a serious mental health crisis on our hands for a while, and the pandemic has elevated it in an even more concerning way,” notes IHRSA president and CEO Liz Clark. “The health and fitness industry has a crucial role to play in reversing this public health crisis. With support from the IHRSA Foundation, fitness facilities are able to better assist members and consumers who are struggling with anxiety, depression, and loneliness or who just want to improve their mental wellness.”

“It’s important to recognize that skills for mental well-being are something that everyone needs to learn, not just people who are at risk for mental health problems,” adds Cassandra Vieten, Ph.D., executive director of the John W. Brick Mental Health Foundation. “There are many approaches to boosting mental well-being, and they should be introduced early in life. We’ve created what we call the ‘ecosystem of mental wellbeing,’ which is an array of practices and arenas that contribute to mental well-being.”

The practices Dr. Vieten references can be found in the Move Your Mental Health Report, a John W. Brick Mental Health Foundation study based on three decades of research on the connection between exercise and mental health.

Click here to access free resources from Matrix to enhance the implementation of tactics addressed in the IHRSA Foundation’s Supporting Mental Health & Well-Being: A Toolkit for Health & Fitness Centers.

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