Strengthen body and mind with one of a new range of classes addressing both mental and physical health.

It’s not exactly news that getting some endorphins flowing via exercise can be a massive help if you’re struggling with low moods. But what has changed recently is the wealth of gyms and classes working to combine physical and mental health improvement – looking after body and mind.

Different clubs are offering spaces incorporating fitness classes, personal training, and gym equipment, with services such as counselling, mindfulness sessions and meditation.

When you consider the wealth of scientific evidence connecting a reduction in mental health issues with fitness – for example, one Australian study suggested that just an hour’s exercise a week can help prevent depression – it’s no surprise that these classes, gyms, and centres are gaining massive popularity.

‘Physical and mental health are very closely connected,’ says Joe Gaunt, CEO of hero Training Clubs (herotrainingclubs.com), a Manchester-based firm offering a more holistic approach to fitness. ‘Most of us know about the endorphin production that exercise can lead to but, at the same time, if we feel happy and content we are more likely to exercise and take better care of our bodies.’

Here’s how it works

When even members of the Royal family are talking about mental health, you know it’s a tipping point in ending the stigma around it. While an increased emphasis on addressing depression and anxiety is a fantastic development, there are definite benefits to a more rounded approach – developing a healthy mind and body at the same time.

‘As a society, we’ve made real strides in “normalising” the mental health challenges that individuals face and, although it’s great to see mental health getting more attention, it shouldn’t be to the detriment of other areas of your overall health,’ says Joe.

‘The word “health” is more than what we see on the scales or how far we can run. It’s made up of emotional, social, and physical health and we believe it’s time to give people truly holistic support, with very real and achievable solutions to tackle the health issues we as a nation face.’

And the gym could just be a surprisingly great space to work on both elements. ‘Exercise is often looked at as “not working” if you’re not losing fat, building muscle or getting stronger,’ says Kirsty Greer, a manager at Projekt 42 (projekt42.co.uk), a not-for-profit gym and wellness club in Leith, Edinburgh. ‘But as well as a host of physical benefits, taking part in regular group exercise can reduce stress and anxiety, improve sleep and increase confidence.’

Gyms that work body and mind

So what does a gym space for body and mind actually look like? Individual companies work slightly differently, but essentially these are safe spaces that incorporate gym classes with wellness sessions examining sleep, mental health, nutrition and other areas.

The key is flexibility and an individual-based approach. ‘Our clients might initially visit us first for one-to-one counselling or a sleep seminar and then be ready to try one of our exercise classes,’ says Joe.

‘Some people will need more physical, mental or social support, whereas others might want more specific help and advice around sleep or nutrition, and another person might just want to enjoy our awesome fitness classes.

‘The entire hero Training Club team has received mental health awareness training and has the most up-to-date knowledge and education to appropriately support and assist anyone coming into the club with mental and emotional health worries and issues.’

Benefits of working on mind and body together

Of course, doing two things at once is more efficient – especially for the time-strapped – but are there specific benefits from combining mind and body in this way? The evidence suggests so.

One US study that combined meditation, directly followed by aerobic exercise, found that symptoms of depression reduced in participants by a whopping 40 per cent – more than they would expect for the two activities alone. Talk about multitasking!

‘We believe overall health is interconnected. For example, if you have a good night’s sleep you’re more likely to make the effort to attend an early morning gym session, then you’re more likely to fuel your body with some nutritious food,’ says Joe. ‘This leads to a better functioning body and mind. Finally, if you feel energised, you’ve worked out and had a productive day, you’ll be more likely to make the effort to see friends and socialise.

‘Health is so interconnected and for organisations like us working in this area, we need to address health as a whole and look at it more holistically.’

In it for the long term

With this in mind, it’s perhaps no wonder a further benefit of this integrated approach is that people find it easier to commit to a regular fitness routine. ‘Many of our members have been with us since we opened just over four years ago. When people appreciate there is no end goal, for example, a certain weight or physical achievement, continuing regular exercise for the long term becomes the natural thing to do,’ says Kirsty.

If you’ve ever found it easier to talk through a tricky problem while walking or cycling with a friend, then you’ll know there’s something about moving the body that can help us share our feelings.

‘Combining working out with a therapeutic experience likely amplifies the benefits of both activities,’ says Natasha Tiwari, a psychologist and psychotherapist.

‘Getting moving with someone who you trust, opens up a good mood, releases all the “feel-good hormones” into the bloodstream, and this easy sense of being is conducive to sharing one’s inner life. All of these things are great for mental wellness.’

It certainly seems to be working in gyms and fitness centres so far.

‘We have seen reduced stigma around talking about mental health and using mental health services,’ says Kirsty. ‘This is largely due to taking mental health services out of the clinical setting.’

Ultimately, creating more spaces where people feel safe to share their feelings – as well as getting their heart rate up – can only be a good thing.

Try it for yourself

These pioneering centres offer a more holistic approach to health.

The Foundry, London (foundryfit.com)

These gyms offer “emotional reviews” several times a year, and also bring in counsellors for seminars. classes start from £20.

hero Training Clubs, Manchester (herotrainingclubs.com)

These offer hundreds of gym classes a week, as well as physio and wellbeing services. try out two gym or class sessions for £10.

Projekt 42, Edinburgh (projekt42.co.uk)

A not-for-profit wellness club offering outdoor and online classes, guided meditation, counselling and more. From £2.50 per class.

Rowbots, London (rowbots.co.uk)

Classes combine rowing and weights with sport psychology and life coaching. membership from £78 per month. classes start from £22.

Mindset, London (mindsetfit.co.uk)

This boutique gym helps promote physical, mental and emotional health via a range of classes. Prices start from £30 per month.

Find out how walking can help your mental health.