This piece is part of Bustle’s All Levels Welcome, a column about making fitness culture as accessible and inclusive as possible.
If you’ve ever had a personal trainer that you really got along with, you know how intimate working out under someone’s careful supervision can be. And if you’ve ever been in therapy, you might recognize some uncanny similarities between your experiences on the gym floor and the proverbial therapist’s couch. Of course, a personal trainer isn't the same as a therapist: it would be unethical for your trainer to provide psychological counseling, and your therapist probably isn't the best person to coach your squat form. Still, there’s no denying that finding a good personal trainer is a lot like finding a good therapist.
As a certified personal trainer who’s been in therapy for nearly a decade, I’ve often noticed striking similarities between my role as a trainer for my clients and my therapist’s role in my life. Just like my therapist sees me at my most vulnerable week after week, I’ve been with my clients through intense life changes, moods, dips in mental health, and times of celebration. Challenging yourself in the gym is just as mental as it is physical — just like exposing your deepest thought processes and fears to your therapist. Both therapist and personal trainer can help guide you through all of those peaks, valleys, and transformations.
With both therapy and training, "you're going to try and find someone who's trained in modalities that are a good match for you," Liz Beecroft, LMSW, a psychotherapist and mental health advocate, tells Bustle. In both settings, it's important to find someone you're comfortable with, she says, because consistency is important. You want to find someone that will "continue to motivate you," both on the proverbial couch and the gym floor.
Before you can get consistent, though, you've got to find a good match. Getting a good therapist or a good personal trainer can take a long time, with so many different factors — cost and working style, for example — to navigate. When you start the process of finding a therapist or personal trainer, make sure that they are certified according to their respective industry standards at the bare minimum. From there, finding the best person for your needs is often a process of trial and error.
“I went through at least three different trainers before I finally found one who fit me best,” says Liz, 34, who's been with the same personal trainer for two years and the same therapist for one. “I got lucky and settled on my second therapist, but it was hard! Sometimes with therapists our personalities didn’t match, and sometimes with trainers I just didn’t feel listened to.” It can be hard to set the boundaries you need and know when to call it quits, especially in such a vulnerable relationship as with your trainer or therapist, but Liz says it’s not worth your time (or money) to stay with a therapist or trainer who just doesn’t feel right.
To help find a good fit to begin with, “you’ve really got to interview them,” Jackson, 29, who has been in therapy for four years and personal training for one, tells Bustle. “Trainers and therapists both should ask you a lot of questions when you’re first starting to work together, on intake forms and in person. But you have to ask questions, too, to make sure the person is going to be a good match with you.” Jackson, recommends screening your potential personal trainer or therapist with questions about things that mean a lot to you.
Jackson suggest asking questions like, “Have you worked with people with my experiences and needs before? What treatment or exercise strategies do you usually use? How would you course correct if those strategies don’t work well for me?” In addition to questions like these, Jackson and Liz both suggest paying attention to your potential therapist or personal trainer’s personality to see if you’re a good fit. "Whatever it is that you need, remember that even though it seems like your trainer or therapist has all the power in the relationship, it’s also a two-way relationship where you’re working together to get to your goals,” Liz says.
There's also a two-way relationship between your mental and physical well-being that your therapist and trainer can help you maintain, Beecroft tells Bustle. "Exercise is a very good coping skill for your mental health because it actually releases endorphins in your brain, which increase happiness, motivation levels, and confidence," she says. Less severe symptoms of depression can make it easier to work out, and working out can make it easier to do more work in therapy, Beecroft says. This mutual relationship can help you maintain a solid practice with your therapy and your training.
Ultimately, your therapist and personal trainer are both people who will see you struggling, who will pay close attention to your body and mind to figure out how best to help you move forward and do things you never dreamed you could do. It’s OK to be selective about who you trust with that intimacy and investment, both emotional and financial. “My therapist and my personal trainer have both changed my life for the better,” Liz says. “It was definitely worth the effort to find the right people for me.”
Liz Beecroft, LMSW, psychotherapist and mental health advocate