You've probably seen someone in the gym wearing a clever slogan tank that alludes to the mental benefits of exercise, like, "I Don't Need Therapy, I Work Out My Issues At The Gym," "Exercise Is My Therapy," and "Work Out. It's Cheaper Than Therapy." Or maybe you've seen someone use the hashtag versions on Instagram. This is a sentiment that lots of people seem to have, and even celebrities like Khloé Kardashian have claimed that exercise was what got them through difficult times. "I had all these emotions that I didn't know what to do with," Kardashian told Shape in 2016 about her breakup with Lamar Odom. "Some people suggested therapy, but instead I joined my local Equinox gym."
No shade to Kardashian, who is a fitness icon in her own right, but there's a difference between using exercise as a tool that helps you achieve your mental health goals and dismissing therapy because you think exercise does basically the same thing but is somehow more brag-worthy. For starters, there's a common misconception that people who go to therapy are weak or lacking mental fortitude to deal with their problems, which is simply not the case. Lots of people go to therapy as a way to promote self-awareness or learn tools to deal with emotions — and that's not easy, and it undoubtedly takes strength.
There's a common misconception that people who go to therapy are weak or lacking mental fortitude to deal with their problems, which is simply not the case.
The other thing is that working out and going to therapy are two very different activities, even if they can both make you feel good. "Exercise can elevate your mood, but it's not going to change the way you think," says Patricia Thornton, PhD, a psychologist in New York City and member of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. "That's where psychotherapy has to come in." Going to therapy isn't just an outlet for people to burn off energy or anxiety, and often people seek therapy because they want to make changes when they feel stuck, she says. "Usually that involves challenging your assumption about yourself and about your life; you might be reframing things, saying, or addressing negative self-talk." And no amount of exercise can do that.
That said, exercise isn't necessarily bad for your mental health, and there's plenty of research that suggests that exercise can elevate a person's mood, reduce anxiety and depression, and boost their self-esteem. "In that way, you might have a cognitive shift from exercise, but you're not really changing your overall thinking in terms of your life," Dr. Thornton says. Many clinicians, including Dr. Thornton, will even prescribe exercise for their clients, because it can help to make them feel more motivated to put in the work during actual therapy sessions. "To get people to go into therapy is very tough, because it’s time-consuming, it’s expensive, and you’re vulnerable," she says. "If it means that your exercise is giving you some boost to go to therapy, great." In other words, instead of using exercise as a way to escape or cure your problems, it's better to use it as a form of self care, she says.
In a perfect world, people would use exercise in conjunction with therapy, Dr. Thornton says. "I think of exercise just like medication: If somebody is really incapacitated, super depressed, and anxious, they may need medicine to help them do the work of psychotherapy," she says. But exercise alone isn't going to change the way that you think, which is the whole point of going to therapy in the first place. And, again, that's not an easy thing to do. So wouldn't it be a huge step in the right direction if people would openly talk about going to therapy just as much as they brag about their fitness pursuits?
As for the workout tanks and hashtags, even though they're meant to be funny, they ultimately reinforce a harmful stereotype about mental health assistance, whether or not people realize it. There's enough competition in a gym atmosphere already, are you sure that's the message you want to be sending?