Keeping gyms open: a mental health solution or part of the problem?
I invite you to read this blog with a curious, open mind- whether you are a regular gym-user yourself or whether you have someone in your life for whom the gym feels essential to their mental health. The following is a combination of my own musings over the course of the strange year that has been 2020, alongside research studies to support my hypothetical inquiry: Gym culture- mental health friend...or foe?
During the UK-wide national lockdown of 2020, studies from The Health Foundation suggested that over two thirds of the population’s mental health was negatively impacted. The reasons for each individual’s struggle will be a combination of factors unique to their social, financial and environmental circumstances; no two people will have had the same experience of lockdown and as such it would be careless to assume that every person struggling is struggling for the same reason.
During periods of forced closure, certain groups of business-users were more vocal than others. I don’t think a single person with access to media could have failed to notice the uproar from the gym community; from ‘fitspo’ social media accounts to petitions, from gyms breaking lockdown laws to calls for gyms to be classed as essential businesses- you may agree or disagree with the sentiment but you are unlikely to have missed the debate.
It got me wondering about the importance of gyms; petitions stating that they are ‘essential for mental health’ gained traction across the UK, while a scroll through social media accounts using the hashtag ‘keep gyms open’ lead me down a disturbing rabbit-hole of gym-mirror selfies. I am not denying for a moment that health is a holistic concept (the mental being inseparable from the physical); my curiosity and growing concern, however, is that Covid-19 has lifted the curtain on another type of pandemic. One that is dressed in Gym Shark lycra and reflected in gym mirrors around the world; one that is dangerous, in that it claims to be part of the cure for mental ill- health but is in actuality a major contributor in the decline of mental wellness.
Given that exercise is available to anyone that seeks it, be it a jog around your local streets, a free yoga or HIIT video on YouTube, dancing in your kitchen, a bike ride- it simply cannot be the case that gyms are essential for people to move their bodies. There are factors around accountability (perhaps making a regular appointment with a Personal Trainer keeps you committed to ongoing training) and the motivation that comes from group sessions- but accountability and motivation can be found outside of a gym environment if you want them. I can’t help but wonder about the other thing that happens inside a gym- and whether the sheer threat of not being seen has fuelled the blinkered determination of those calling for ‘gym-immunity’ during the pandemic of 2020.
There is no doubt that one of the greatest human needs is the need to be seen- but we need to be seen not for who we pretend to be, but for who we truly are
Those who know me wont be surprised that I’m first calling on the work of Eric Berne MD to explore the threat of not being seen; Berne identified that, as humans, we all have ‘hungers’ that act as fundamental drivers to push us in to action. Along with the need for contact, connection, stimulation and structure, recognition hunger is about a need to reinforce our identities- our rights to exist in society. To bear witness to each other’s lives one of the most profound and healing experiences available to humans: from a simple nod ‘hello’, eye contact and a smile, to a friend, lover or family member giving us their time and full attention – being SEEN by another person gives us a hit of dopamine and adds another metaphorical piece of Lego to the structure of self that we all strive unconsciously to build.
Sounds great doesn’t it? No wonder people flock to crowded spaces with mirror-lined walls that multiply the potential eyes to view you! But just wait- there is a caveat to all of this, and I can’t help but wonder if this is where we are setting ourselves up for trouble. You see, our hunger for recognition- our empty spaces that need to be filled- can only ever be truly met when we allow ourselves to be fully and authentically seen.
A quick trawl through the likes of Instagram will reveal the sheer inauthenticity within gym selfie culture; the use of slimming, sculpting and ‘perfecting’ filters, careful angles and poses- receiving views and likes for doctored selfies is like fuelling your body entirely with sugar. Being seen for a false self leads to that immediate, temporary boost of dopamine which is followed by a crash – the crash feels pretty dreadful and drives you to seek that boost again, leading to an ultimately deeply unhealthy cycle of seeking recognition and receiving conditional soothing. The condition? Look your best, no matter how you’re feeling. People will see you and approve of you only if your appearance is appreciated. Your brain’s reward centre turns in to a hungry baby and you become locked into an addictive process.
When we have a conditional sense of being okay and accepted in the world (as opposed to feeling okay and accepted exactly as we are), we have built our esteem as a house of cards- and so it’s no wonder that the closure of gyms has rocked our sense of safety. The pandemic has threatened each of us in so many ways, and it has also shone a light on the parts of ourselves that can be so easily toppled by a breeze. When you find yourself using energy arguing for your right to exercise within the very specific confines of a public building during a global pandemic, because it feels ‘essential for your mental wellbeing’ then I would gently and lovingly invite you to reserve a little of that energy to look inwards- look inside at that painful part that is crying out for what it believes it needs and sit with it for a while. Maybe that painful part was never truly seen, never felt loved exactly the way it was when it was little and was forming beliefs about itself and the world. Maybe that part finally felt approved of when your body lost some weight or gained some muscle or was admired for looking good in matching workout gear.
We ALL need to be seen- it is literally a survival requirement, wired into our brains from the moment we first open our eyes. It’s part of the reason that isolation and solitary confinement lead to a significantly reduced lifespan. But when we try to meet a survival need with a superficial solution, it doesn’t take much to breach our fragile defences and send us crashing down. Instead of spending an hour selecting the ‘perfect’ outfit, pose and filter combination to maximise those tantalising Insta ‘hearts’, would you consider using some of that time ask yourself ‘what is it I need right now?’ And ‘is there another way that I can get that need met?’
Posting that photograph and feeling noticed will give you a sugar-high- so can you imagine how amazing you might feel when you nourish yourself wholly and without conditions?
There is no doubt that one of the greatest human needs is the need to be seen- but we need to be seen not for who we pretend to be, but for who we truly are.