New breed of gym that trains your muscles and your mind!11 min read

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So you’ve joined a new gym this month. Don’t be surprised if the instructor is interested not only in your old back injuries and dodgy hamstrings, but in how happy you are, too.

In fact, you might well be quizzed on any past mental health concerns, because in 2020 getting fit means treating both mind and body as deserving of a good workout. The aim? Firm abs, of course, but also strengthened mental resilience and higher levels of happy hormones such as serotonin.

No one should be surprised at the link: we all recognise the endorphin high that comes after a fitness class. It’s often what motivates us to go again.

But there is an additional benefit to using fitness to help our mental health. Researchers have found that trained muscles help to clean the blood, much like the kidneys and liver.

Victoria Lambert (pictured at Rowbots, London) explores the new breed of UK gyms that train your muscles and mind

Victoria Lambert (pictured at Rowbots, London) explores the new breed of UK gyms that train your muscles and mind 

When we exercise, our muscles assist in converting a stress marker called kynurenine into kynurenic acid. And that’s important because high levels of kynurenine have been measured in people with mental illness, such as depression. They also discovered that kynurenic acid seems to activate a cell receptor which helps us burn fat.

It’s no wonder, then, that gyms are exploring the idea that exercising the mind as well as the body creates a new form of holistic fitness. That might mean mixing life coaching and mindfulness with your weight-training, or counselling in your Abs Blast session. But how does the combination work in practice?

The founder of Edinburgh wellness gym Projekt 42 (projekt42.co.uk), 34-year-old Sara Hawkins, says: ‘We talk about mental health a lot in the studio. We explain how fitness is good for things like anxiety and depression, and that setting and achieving small goals can boost your confidence and self-esteem.’

Projekt 42 runs a 12-week course which includes fitness activities (from yoga to weights and running), sessions with a personal trainer, counselling and life coaching.

The good news? You don’t have to go to Scotland to experience this kind of all-round wellness. Clubs that believe healthy minds and healthy bodies work best in tandem are setting up across the UK.

A FULL-ON MONDAY SESSION RESET MY MIND

‘Programme the mind and power the body,’ promises London gym Rowbots. Its 45-minute classes use weights and rowing to fix your physical state, and sports psychology and life-coaching techniques to get your brain in gear.

There’s a different theme each day: Monday, for example, is reset day, which is about overcoming failure or setting you up for the week ahead; Thursday’s class is about strength and helping you to manage your energy reserves; Sundays are recharge day and include 15 minutes of yoga to help with recovery. Rowbots claims it’s ideal for anyone who struggles with productivity.

Clearly, this is a world away from classes that aim to just improve your mood; these sessions are modelled on the sort of training done by professional sportspeople.

But I admit to feeling anxious on the cold, dark Monday morning I arrive. I’ve been struggling for months with a sense of dread — due to the menopause, caring for my 91-year-old mother and trying to juggle work and home.

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I’d tried running to relieve stress, but kept getting injured. The failure to even stay fit was adding to my anxiety.

Victoria (pictured with Pele) said the 45-minute classes at London gym Rowbots, is the hardest class that she's ever done

Victoria (pictured with Pele) said the 45-minute classes at London gym Rowbots, is the hardest class that she’s ever done

So it was truly daunting to find my Rowbots workout fellows mostly looking like they could be preparing for marathons. This is not a class for kidding about. There is no smiling, but quite a lot of scowling.

Head trainer Pele, whose bodybuilder frame belies his gentle approach, instructs us in six-minute sets on the rower and weights alternately. The emphasis is on pushing yourself to the point of failure — I was good at that — then trying again. It is a fierce class.

At one point I desperately want to lie on the floor and weep. But I don’t want to let Pele down, so I push on and do my best with the bicep curls and rowing sprints. Perhaps that means the mind-body connection is working? I’m being inspired to go beyond what I thought I could.

Rowbots’ psychotherapist Zoe Aston confirms my instinct is correct. ‘The reset theme is about coming up against problems you might struggle with psychologically and taking you to your limits,’ she says.

At the end of the class, I stagger from the studio to drink a smoothie made by the friendly receptionists. There are cushioned chill-out cocoons with wi-fi built into the walls of the club where you can recover your breath. It’s definitely the hardest class I’ve ever done.

Greg Zimmerman, Rowbots’ chief experience officer and one of its founders, promises that his mum and dad (in their late 50s) love it.

I’m just pleased to feel long-dormant muscles beginning to ache, reminding me they need a bit more love and attention. As for the endorphin high — well, that lasted two days.

COST: Membership starts at £100 for six classes a month. Individual classes cost £19.50, but this price drops the more classes you buy in advance (rowbots.co.uk).

PERFECT DIVORCE SURE? COUNSELLING IN YOUR BOXING GYM  

By Anna Magee  

Anna Magee (pictured boxing) who has been coping with the death of her mother and divorce, gave verdict on Hero Training in Manchester

Anna Magee (pictured boxing) who has been coping with the death of her mother and divorce, gave verdict on Hero Training in Manchester

Over the course of 95 minutes, I laugh, I get angry, punch things, jump, lift, sweat, meditate, stretch and cry. I’m at a new studio in Manchester called Hero Training, which claims to be ‘Britain’s first truly integrated health club’. We kick off with a 35-minute circuit class involving slam balls, kettlebells, jump training, battle ropes and boxing drills. We wear heartrate monitors and see our training zone and recovery times on a screen. I am at the end of an acrimonious divorce, and going to boxing classes has helped me release my pentup anger and aggression.

 But I have always left processing my emotions to weekly therapy sessions that take place on a different day, and definitely in a different place, to my workouts. But at Hero I’m told a counselling session is available straight after my fitness class. It jars with me at first — how can I switch into talking mode after working out? Easily, it turns out. Hero Training features a therapy room between the boxing area and yoga studio. ‘This helps to normalise the idea of talking therapies as a key part of health,’ says co-founder Stephen Waterman. 

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Moreover, Hero’s founders left mirrors out of all the studios — they’re only found in the ladies’ changing rooms. I hate mirrors in gyms — they reinforce my low self-esteem issues. I stare at my wrinkles or bad hair, and that makes me feel miserable. Once I got over the shock of having therapy straight after a boxing session, I find it easy to open up about the changes going on in my life. The endorphins released in workouts can act like morphine, diminishing the perception of pain. I wonder if that could be why, after exercise, I felt less tense and less likely to maintain my brave face. I’ve been dealing with a lot.

My mum died 18 months ago. Then there’s the divorce, plus a tricky time with my business. My coping strategy involves putting everything into little compartments, I proudly tell Ashleigh Turner, Hero’s head therapist. But where do I put my feelings of hurt and sadness, she asks? I burst into tears. The answer, I blurt out, is that I don’t feel those things. I go to a boxing class, or work harder, or obsessively plan all my meals, or lose my temper with a poor, unsuspecting friend.

Anna (pictured) revealed her session at Hero Training helped her to open up without the pressure of a formal therapy setting

Anna (pictured) revealed her session at Hero Training helped her to open up without the pressure of a formal therapy setting

Ashleigh tells me that our feelings have to go somewhere, and if we do not process them, they can come out as angry outbursts or control-freakery or (in my case) over-exercise or being pedantic about eating plans. We do a mindfulness exercise in which Ashleigh shows me how to lean into the pain of losing my mum when it hits, or the anger I sometimes feel towards my ex-husband, then to look at it curiously and let it float away like a balloon. 

The short 30-minute session doesn’t by any means cure my problems — in fact, it highlights them. But that helps me feel their impact. Ashleigh’s gentle but persistent prodding of my emotions, experienced without the pressure of being in a formal therapy setting, helps me open up. When I do a 30-minute yoga session afterwards, I feel as though I’ve been through a physical and emotional washing machine. It’s like my body and mind have been cleansed and renewed, in just 95 minutes. 

COST: Membership starts at £99 a month. Pay-as-you-go classes cost from £20, and counselling sessions from £40 (herotraining clubs.com)

THERAPY ON THE RUN GOT ME THROUGH MY WORST YEAR EVER 

By Inge Van Lotringen 

As far as bad years go, 2019 was down there with the worst of them.

I lost my beloved dad at the end of April, suffered a bit of a financial meltdown when someone swindled £15,000 out of my bank account and, like the sour cherry on top, got unexpectedly made redundant from my career-defining job as beauty director of Cosmopolitan a month before Christmas.

Yet one part of my life has remained as stable as ever and, in fact, has helped me get through the bad bits. Throughout the year, I relied on a run in the fresh air or a good yoga class for its power to ease, if not eradicate, my pain.

So when someone told me about Dynamic Running Therapy (DRT), I was intrigued.

Devised by London-based psychotherapist William Pullen, it starts with an outdoor mindfulness exercise that teaches you to focus on your senses and not your racing brain, followed by what’s essentially a counselling session while jogging. Could William help me see a way through my own upheaval?

We meet on a drizzly morning in London’s Hyde Park. William — a friendly fiftysomething in running shorts and not, thankfully, a Lycra-clad He-Man — puts me at ease.

‘I hit upon the idea of taking therapy outside when I went through a depression myself, and a friend started taking me out for slow jogs, just to chat,’ he says.

‘At first, it felt like baby steps. It’s important to go slowly when you’re trying to work your way out of a depression. Over time, I built it into a regular routine.

‘I realised that moving forward side-by-side makes people less self-conscious and happier to open up. It also gets you out of the house. Depressed people tend to stay inside and make their world small and dark, which leads to a vicious cycle of shame and hiding. But the way to get perspective on things is to be outside. This therapy is a great way of doing that.’

I nod furiously. I made a point of running in the forest in my hometown every morning when I was there to see my dad — when he was ailing, when he was dying, when he was dead.

I ran on the morning after the night he passed away, and the trees were stoically going through their seasonal changes as always, showing me that dad and I were just a tiny part of a natural cycle. I can’t tell you how much peace and consolation that gave me.

Inge (pictured) said running with a therapist felt like a great way to deal with her worries

Inge (pictured) said running with a therapist felt like a great way to deal with her worries

Add to that the fact that running lowers anxiety and helps your body release happy hormones, and I found I could manage and feel my grief without drowning in it.

Now, facing joblessness at almost 50, running with a therapist, who offers learned insights, feels like a great way to deal with my worries.

Talking through my journey, William points out that despite my assertion that I’m terrible at change, I seem to have a decent handle on it. To my puzzlement, I was told the same thing recently by a former boss I greatly admire. It’s true that, after leaving Cosmopolitan, I’ve let go of the anger and grief of needing to leave my ‘work home’ and friends there without having put a foot wrong, and embraced the new work that seems to have come my way.

As for my dad, I’ve found a way to think of him as a constant loving companion in my heart, and not as the father who has gone.

William asks what kind of man he was, and I tell him how much I admired him for his ability to not dwell on pain and disappointment, and move forward in a positive way. It made him a content man. William says I seem a lot like him.

I told Dad before he died that he left me well-equipped for life. I’ve just learned that a professional therapist agrees with me.

COST: £150 per session (williampullenpsychotherapist.com).