A place to exercise your brain? Introducing Mental Health Gyms

  • By Brandon Drenon
  • BBC News, Washington D.C.

source of images, Getty Images

When David McCullar, 42, thinks back to the early 2000s, a chapter of his life marked by rapid change, he remembers palm trees, sunny beaches – and the panic attacks that made him sick.

“I was throwing up every day,” Mr McCullar said.

In 2001, the company he worked for went bankrupt. He lost his job. He left his hometown. He moved over 1,000 miles (1,600 km), from Detroit, Michigan, to South Florida.

He was looking for a fresh start but found panic and anxiety. A few years later, Mr. McCullar suffered a debilitating back injury. He then returned home where he saw his parents divorce. Depression followed.

“It felt like everything was happening at once,” McCullar said. “I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I thought maybe I had cancer.”

But where gastroenterologists, anti-nausea pills and indigestion medications failed to tell the difference, a podcast about “brain training” and its effects on mental health gave him a boost. hope.

Mr McCullar didn’t just need medical attention, according to the podcast, he needed exercise – his brain.

While the concept was relatively new in 2006, when McCullar first heard about it, it has since grown in popularity, and now “mental health gyms” devoted to brain exercises like meditation and journaling are doing their appearance in the United States.

Just as lifting weights regularly can help muscles adapt to physical stress, some experts say doing these types of activities regularly can help people adapt to mental pressure.

In 2022, one in four American adults said they were so stressed most of the time that they couldn’t function, according to the annual Stress in America survey published by the American Psychological Association.

And, about three-quarters of adults (76%) reported experiencing negative health effects due to stress, including headaches, fatigue and depression.

Shortly after hearing the podcast, in 2007 Mr. McCullar flew to Arizona to see one of the few practitioners at the time with experience in brain entrainment.

“My anxiety had dropped 50% in one day,” he said.

He returned to Michigan inspired and eager to help others who struggled like him. In 2018, he launched Inception, the state’s first mental health gym and one of the first in the country.

source of images, David McCullar


David McCullar is the founder of Inception, a mental health gym. He was inspired to help others after overcoming his own mental health issues

“You go to a typical gym because you want to move your body and improve your body,” McCullar explained. “Same here. You don’t have to come with a diagnosis. You come because you want to improve your psyche.”

Gyms encourage people to perform mental health exercises to reduce anxiety and depression.

At Inception, Mr. McCullar has designed boot camps and training circuits that include equipment to help the brain relax: infrared saunas, weightless chairs, flotation therapy tanks and neurofeedback therapy.

Jake Luhrs, founder of YourLife gym in Pennsylvania, recommends journaling for clients looking to build self-esteem and mental resilience.

Gym owners hope that approaching mental health through a traditional fitness lens will help reduce the stigma that keeps millions of adults from seeking help.

“People are already used to going to a traditional gym,” McCullar said. “We just normalize sanity by sweetening it with the word gym.”

Vaile Wright, senior director of the American Psychological Association, agrees that journaling, meditation, and other self-soothing activities at mental health gyms are helpful holistic approaches to mental health. But they don’t replace treatment or work with a licensed mental health professional, she said.

“These places are usually not health services,” Ms Wright said. “That’s what’s important to know but not always understood by consumers. So if they go away and get worse, that could have really big consequences.”

“How do these places manage the crisis? ” she asked. “How do they decide if someone needs a higher level of care?”

Dr. Lloyd Sederer, adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, expressed concern that some mental health gyms exist exclusively online.

“If someone asked me, ‘Hey doc, what’s the most important thing I need to do to get back to functioning?’ I would say the meds, therapy, diet, sleep and exercise is the heart,” he said.

Some mental health gyms are staffed by licensed therapists and have no physical fitness component.

“A lot of people are waiting for a crisis to hit to start working on their mental health,” said Alexa Meyer, co-founder and CEO of COA, an online mental health gym using licensed therapists. “Our big mission is: how can we help society start working on mental well-being earlier?”

source of images, Justin Brantley


A man receives neurofeedback therapy inside Inception, a mental health gym in Michigan

Ms Meyer believes that making mental health care “fun, accessible and integrated” into everyday life is key to optimizing mental health.

She hopes people will find COA therapists “as fun as your favorite fitness instructor,” and mental fitness classes, with names like Emotional Push-Up, just as engaging.

Meyer defines an emotional push-up as any small exercise that can build emotional strength over time. She likened it to creating a “self-esteem record”.

“Every time something good happens to you, or every time you receive positive feedback, put it in your self-esteem record,” she said.

“So when you’re going through a tough time, you can look back to some of the positive things in your life and the positive feedback you’ve received.”

As with any fitness routine, “when you do a lot of (emotional) push-ups,” Meyer said, “over time, you start to build strength.”

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