Working on ourselves is a continuous and never-ending project. There are always things to improve, and the thought that there might not be, almost makes us feel arrogant and overconfident. So we go on, we improve, track and control. But why are we doing this exactly? Is there a different intention behind buying a gym membership and deciding to invest in therapy? And how do we know which one to go for?
Studies show that working out in a gym is a mean to create a better version of ourselves. Spending our time, outside work and our usual chores, in the gym working out makes us feel efficient and productive. The argument of our current society blaming us for not being productive any time we are awake is becoming more and more popular, and the need to work on ourselves in every free second we have is a great example of this.
The feeling of working on our progress towards a better self also gives us a feel of control over our lives. As control in other aspects of our lives may feel like it’s slipping away, tracking how much we exercise, how many calories we eat, tracking our sleep, heart rate, weight, screen time, steps, and so on help us feel empowered again.
Gym goers also associate going to the gym with emotional resilience, believing that completing a workout doesn’t just make you physically fitter, but also psychologically. Setting ourselves small challenges like finishing a 30 minutes workout can give us the hype of a small success, and the more we complete challenges that may seem hard to tackle, the more we rewire our brains that we can do anything we want, and therefore grow our resilience and confidence. All in all, the feeling of productivity, control and resilience create an attractive product that is understandably popular.
“Gym memberships are not just goods, but goods attached to versions of selfhood”.
Next to a particular kind of healthy, productive and successful self, gyms also promote a particular type of body that is privileged and is met with great feedback in a neo-liberal society. Today, these bodies can create livelihoods and change lives. Therefore, it seems the whole picture of an improved soul and body is a clearly desirable goal, and the gym is the perfect space equipped with every machine we need for “self-intervention, self-surveillance and regulation”.
But for many people, going to the gym is also a way of relieving stress after a long day, spending some much-needed alone time, or socialising. Exercise and health are important aspects of life, and since our lives don’t come with natural ways to exercise anymore, we do need to introduce a more artificial way to do so. The lockdown showed us just how much some people need and depend on their gym routine, and whether that’s a positive thing is everyone’s own judgement.
Deciding to go to therapy is different for men and women. According to research investigating why men turn to therapy, 96% of men reported that their decision was influenced by someone else, mainly a GP or a partner. 37% said they wouldn’t have turned to therapy without the outside push. Women tend to have an easier time asking for help.
On the other hand, the nature of mental health problems such as depression or anxiety often means stopping someone from seeking help. For this reason, the system of referring ourselves to therapy while suffering from a disorder is arguably flawed. However, this flawed system comes with the positive side which means that once we reach a stage in which we can refer ourselves to therapy, we tend to be ready for change and in a better state to tackle our problems.
But regardless of gender, the novelty of the field of Psychology and the stigma around mental health issues are still present. While very differently, according to background, age, culture and gender, there is still judgement that stops people from turning to therapy. This also gives way to the more accepted remedies of making ourselves feel better, like going to the gym.
Unlike a few years ago, recent statistics show that half of gym goers are now women. However, the motive to go to the gym to better our physical and mental state may differ for men and women. While the incredibly strong pressure on women to look a certain way may be one of the major factors to get women to join a gym, that 37% of men without outside push might be more likely to turn to alternative methods to feel better, to avoid the judgement that comes with seeking mental health support. Therefore, many men will choose the gym over therapy.
While some research on motives to go to the gym almost read like a negative view on gym goers presenting them as fake and delusional, the desires to improve and control ourselves and our lives are natural reactions to our fast-paced environment and judgemental society. But it is worth inspecting our motivation to start going to the gym, to make sure we don’t take it too far and we’re not covering up a different problem that might benefit more from therapy over a gym membership.
One also doesn’t have to exist without the other. Many mental health problems are associated with the loss of hope and control. Going to the gym and following a future picture of our lives and feeling like we are back in power are ways to avoid these states and might be great tools to keep us going on the side of therapy.
Gym is clearly a form of self-medication for many, and “home remedies” like these can help us through the time before the positive effect of therapy kicks in or when we’re having natural dips in our confidence in the success of our therapy sessions. Therefore, gym is not to be looked down on unless purely used as a substitute for a more serious intervention.
Only you can decide whether you need one, the other, or both. Either way, believing in a better version of ourselves being out there might not be as bad as portrayed, and with the right tool, you can move in the right direction.
Cusack, J., Deane, F. P., Wilson, C. J., & Ciarrochi, J. (2004). Who influence men to go to therapy? Reports from men attending psychological services. International Journal for the Advancement of Counselling, 26(3), 271-283.
Doğan, C. (2015). Training at the gym, training for life: Creating better versions of the self through exercise. Europe's journal of psychology, 11(3), 442.
Laverty, J., & Wright, J. (2010). Going to the gym: The new urban ‘It’space.