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Sweat and Happy Thoughts Can’t Cure Depression


Insert your own metaphor here, something about struggles and burdens and overcoming. Really, it’s my daughter, doing hard things.

I am a trainer. I train muscles, mostly. I am fortunate enough to have a couple hundred people who trust me with their bodies, and I take that very seriously. I approach it with the same “first do no harm” goal that a good doctor would.

We talk, obsessively, about injury prevention. About knowing, respecting and sometimes pushing your boundaries. We talk about the difference between being “in shape” (a term that is hopelessly entwined in the culture of body-shaming) and being “fit” (which means ready and able to do anything you want to do with your body, safely and functionally.)

But we talk about other stuff too. In the 3 years that we’ve owned a gym, I can safely say that every week I talk to our members about: divorce, love, shame, PTSD, body-shame, fear, death of loved ones, work / life balance, eating disorders, anxiety, severe depression, addiction, gender identity and why those big vibrators have 3 parts that vibrate and look like they go “somewhere.” Okay, the vibrator thing only happened one time, but some form of every single one of these subjects comes up every single week. I do a lot of listening.

Sometimes I think I am a therapist.

Fortunately for everyone, I know that I am not.

In my quest to constantly improve my coaching skills, I read everything that I can about coaching. Which is how I stumbled upon this piece by Hemalayaa, in which she discussed her shock and dismay to learn that some yoga instructors took anti-depressants. In which she discussed the taking of anti-depressants as a moral and personal failing, as well as a failing of their yoga practice.

I found it because many (probably all) of the yoga folks who I follow were outraged by it. (Thankfully!)

As they should be.

It is a weaponized diatribe so full of misunderstanding and shaming as to be dangerous on a mass scale. It is filled with the kind of language that stops people from seeking help when they are having a mental health crisis of any sort. It compounds the already real problems of depression and anxiety that cripple so many, because someone they look to as a teacher and a healer tells them that asking for help is tantamount to failure. As if every single person dealing with depression and anxiety isn’t already dealing with that message coming from inside their own minds on a regular, if not constant, basis.

I was, literally, sick to my stomach reading it.

I was also profoundly struck by how fantastically out of line she was. Not just in being so wrong, but in thinking that she had a right to dispense this information in the first place.

So let’s get this straight. No matter how much reading we do, or how well-intentioned we are, those of us who are fitness trainers are, generally speaking, NOT doctors. We are usually not psychiatrists, nutritionists, oncologists, rheumatologists etc…. When people have specific problems, we must refer them to the professionals who are trained to deal with those issues. Period. We are trainers, not gods. Our greatest power lies in the ability to help our members seek help, not in thinking that we can help all the people with all the things.

I am greatly humbled by the trust that our members place in me, whether they are trusting me to correct their squat form, or confiding in me that the depression is back and they are fighting with everything they’ve got and can I please call them if I don’t see them for a while because they just don’t want to get sucked back in.

I know my place. It is to listen, to validate, and to first do no harm. Which often means asking for help, and making sure everyone knows that asking for the help you need in life is the strongest and bravest thing you can do. Always.

Now, what does that look like?

For the physical stuff, these are my general rules:

1. Know what you don’t know.  I have a very firm, but not expert, grasp on body mechanics, metabolic response, large and small muscle groups, mobility, and herding a class full of athletes through a warm-up and a workout that will get them stronger in a general sense. I have a decent grasp on how to work through your basic owies and sore spots.

But when someone’s body is in PAIN, when something hurts and doesn’t work, I have a great collection of business cards that I whip out with great abandon. I have PTs, Chiropractors, Massage Therapists, Orthopedic Surgeons and acupuncturists at the ready. (Yes, I also have a ready list of mental health professionals, which I’ll get to in a bit.)

2. Err on the side of caution. Unless someone is training to compete and has some sort of career lifeline attached to that competition, there is NO REASON to risk injury in order to get a record of any sort. Keep people working AT, but generally not over, their boundaries. Teach people to stop if form is on the verge of failure. Teach people how to bail, and celebrate their ability to make that decision. This is especially true in weightlifting (where I spend most of my life,) but just as true in any sport. Teach people to know when something feels wrong, and listen to their gut. (True outside of the gym as well. This is most important thing I try to teach our daughters!)

Most importantly: IF IT HURTS, DON’T DO IT!

3. Don’t universalize the personal. Just because something works for you doesn’t mean it will work for someone else. Giving up gluten worked for you? Awesome for you. Doesn’t mean it will work for someone else. Working out 6 days a week worked for you? Awesome for you. Doesn’t mean it will work for someone else.

Same is true with goals. Your goal may have been to snatch your body weight, or run a marathon or …… that may not be someone else’s goal. Your goal isn’t better or righter or anythinger than someone else’s. DO NOT UNVERSALIZE THE PERSONAL.

What you want for yourself may not be what someone else wants for themselves. And you have no business wanting something for someone else because you are not in control of, and have no right to judge, the decisions that someone else makes about their own life. PERIOD.


But what of the emotional stuff? Our members come to us with all manner of issues that we share and care about. But they are not our issues to fix or control. We are vessels, or channels, through which they can flow their fears so that we can face them together. I firmly believe that strong and healthy bodies are a fantastic partner on the path to strong and healthy minds. When people let us into their minds and hearts, I know we are on a great path.

But it’s still not a path that I control.

When an athlete comes to me with their personal issues, here’s what I do:

1. Validate them. Tell them that you understand that what they are going through is hard. That it sucks. Or is scary. Or seems unfair. They are right about what they feel. The fact that you might feel differently if it were you is totally irrelevant, and you do not have any right to tell them that. Will it serve them? No, don’t do it.

2. Ask them what they wish was different. 9 times out of 10 they’ll be able to give you a list, some of which is out of anyone’s control. But there will be 1 or 2 things that you can help them set as goals. Those can be handholds to create a safety structure for people who are suffering. You’d be amazed how far a simple, “great, I’ll see you 3 times next week, I’m looking forward to it and paying attention” can go. Very far.

3. Ask them what you can do. Stay within the scope of your work, you do not have the right or the responsibility to let your role ooze into personal time, but within the confines of your role at your studio, you can do a lot. Ask them what you can do to help.

4. Know your boundaries and your limitations. Do not offer up any help that you are not qualified or capable of following through on. That is not fair to anyone.

5. REFER THEM TO THE PROS. If someone has a toothache, you send them to a dentist. A shoulder that won’t work right, you send them to an orthopedist. If someone is dealing with emotional trauma or a mental health problem, you refer them to an expert. You should gather a list of providers that you can refer to. How? Ask your members for their recommendations. I’m serious. Not only will you get a list that you can trust, but you will signal to your members that you care deeply and are a safe place to ask for help. One question on your private Facebook page could save lives, literally.


And now a few words about depression.


I’m sorry (not sorry) to yell at you like that. But if you have ever known anyone who suffers from depression and anxiety, it is as real as cancer. I’ve lived next to it all my life, and it is as real as cancer. As I got older I started referring to it as “cancer of the soul.” It is chemical. It is biological. It is as real as cancer, as diabetes, as MS. And for many people it can be helped with medication to correct some chemical imbalances.

If you’ve never witness the soul-decaying strength of depression, then you are lucky (and probably delusional.) If you’ve ever witnessed the life-saving effect of the right medication, then you know what I’m talking about when I implore you NOT to shame people for getting the medical help they need and deserve.

You cannot fix a chemical imbalance with a mantra. No more than you can wish away cancer or fix diabetes by thinking the good thinks real hard.

And if you’re sitting there saying that too many people take meds, I want to know who the fuck you are to judge? Really, who are you? Where is your degree from? How many hundreds of thousands of people have you witnesses suffering? Who are you to judge?

Who are you to tell another human being that you know their body and their life and their suffering and their hopes and strengths more than they do?

Because if you are a yoga instructor or a CrossFit coach or a body builder or a……. you are not a mental health professional and you need to step away and let the pros take this one.

There are very likely some very real genetic and biological components at play. And you don’t know what previous trauma may be living in that body you’re working on.

Look, I believe that healthy bodies are helpful allies to minds that are struggling. I believe all the research that says exercise is a powerful tool in the mental health arsenal. I think that eating a healthful diet, being part of a caring community and using your body helps almost everything.

HELPS. Doesn’t cure. And isn’t always enough.

As professionals who are committed to the well-being of our clients / members / athletes, it is incumbent upon us to help them find the help they need. We can’t solve it all, and that doesn’t make us weak. But helping people find the help they need – whether it’s for their bodies or their minds – that is our highest calling. That is what changes lives.

I’m just one coach, in one gym in one city. But if you’re one of “my” athletes, and you ask me for help, I will find it for you. I know that I can’t fix everything (I can’t even fix everyone’s squat,) but I can refer like a champ!

And I can assure you that you are right to feel what you feel. That you are not hopeless. That you, by virtue of asking for help, have everything you need to start feeling better. Whether it’s your shoulder or your soul.

You are not alone.

There is help.

It gets better.

(Except Burpees, those really never get better.)

___ Note: Hemalayaa took down her post since last night when i wrote about it. I will link to a cached copy when I get home. Not to be punitive to her, but because it matters. It is a very real and very common dialog that is so harmful and I think it serves as an excellent illustration of how even the most well-intentioned amongst us fall into dangerous traps.


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