Am I Too Cynical For Mindful Workouts?

Photographed by Ashley Armitage.
"Have you tried exercising?"
When you struggle with your mental health, exercise recommendations (from strangers, loved ones or medical professionals) are so common they’ve become a cliché. Whether I’m at my lowest, bed-bound by intrusive thoughts and panic attacks or, at my best, dealing with only occasional, minor bouts of depression, the idea of working out as a 'cure' for my brain is inescapable.
While there are several studies about exercise benefiting your mental health, I struggle with it as a catchall recommendation. Its usefulness really depends on the individual and their headspace. I’ve found the claims to be completely true when I’m feeling mentally stable, and the mental clarity and sense of satisfaction that can come from exercise is genuinely beneficial. But when I’m really struggling, well-meaning advice that a jog can lift a bad mood feels like I’m being mocked – I need medical and psychiatric help to get out of bed thanks, not motivational quotes about chasing my bliss.
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For the most part, the way I think about exercise as a remedy for mental health issues is the same way I think about meditation and certain forms of mindfulness. It would be unfair and unfounded to dismiss it entirely but it can verge on dangerous to see it as the only solution for someone who is mentally unwell. I’m quite cynical about workouts designed specifically to benefit your mental health, like boxing classes with mindful elements or the workouts at Manor Gym designed to build 'mental resilience'.
So I was curious when I was emailed about Boom Cycle’s new class that aims to bring together mindfulness and exercise for the benefit of your mental health. The Mindful Ride, developed in collaboration with the charity CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) is a "75-minute experiential journey" that "aims to deliver a mental health focused fitness experience that builds confidence and overall happiness in daily life." It was created by Hilary Rowland, the founder of Boom Cycle, and James Lamper, the clinical director and founder of EmotionMatters ("London's leading therapy centre for mind and body wellness"). James tells me that the Mindful Ride combines guided meditation and visualisation with a spin class that aims to "inspire riders to unlock their full potential while reaching a heightened level of sensory hedonism." Expanding on that, James says the aim is to give participants "a more holistic workout – sweat, sensory awareness, flexibility and a whole lot of endorphins."
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Spinning seems like a natural fit for mindfulness, even if I instinctively balk at the phrase 'sensory hedonism'. When I’ve gone to spin classes in the past (including at Boom Cycle), peddling to euphoria-inducing beats in a darkened room is the closest I’ve come to successfully meditating. Unlike other workout classes where stark lighting makes you conscious of the strangers surrounding you, spinning can be much more dissociative, the struggle to keep up with the glossy-ponytailed instructor forcing you to forget the world around you. By the end, any self-consciousness you may have had about scream-shouting "WOO" in a room full of strangers has been sweated away. It’s the closest I’ve come to understanding the experience of being in a cult.
What I’m less sure of is how guided meditation will fit with such a high intensity activity. To my mind, the meditative element of sprinting on a stationary bike to a house remix of Ed Sheeran is diametrically opposed to a serene visualisation exercise. Hilary doesn't think so, telling me: "Boom Cycle has always had the aim of allowing our riders time to escape from their stresses and cut loose. The Mindful Ride was designed to provide a deeper delve into this as well as some ideas and suggestions that can help them attain better balance that they could take home from the ride." Theoretically, I can see how they inform one another – but surely the transition between the two would be jarring?
Well, yes and no. After an initial guide through the various bike moves we’d be doing in a separate smaller studio, we wait in semi-comfortable silence in the lobby before being ushered quietly into the darkened room. It's clear the organisers want to instil a sense of calm into proceedings so that the transition into the slow-pedal guided meditation is easier. And so, while soothing trance plays in the background, we're told to close our eyes and visualise ourselves as a rose that is first a bud before it slowly unfurls and flowers, all while mimicking the process with our hand movements. I engage in good faith, and find the act of slowly pedalling throughout a useful anchor to reality until, as we become a room of roses in full bloom, I hear and then smell the spritz of a rose aroma spray. Instead of feeling serene, all I can think about is how it will blend with sweat.
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We then transition into a more traditional spin class, peppered with motivational visualisations and whooping. There are a couple of disjointed moments, such as when we're visualising a sunrise and yellow lights are turned on around the platform where Hilary is leading the class – it's obviously meant to mimic sunlight but paired with the few candles dotted about, it feels more like a satanic sacrifice. But overall I enjoy it: I sweat (a lot), I whoop, I genuinely don’t realise how long I've been in there until it's all over.
On reflection, it’s hard to say whether I just enjoy spin or if any of the added features improved my experience. The framing of the class meant the motivational drive was less about pushing your body to the limits and more about enjoying the experience, which I really liked. But the additional visualisations verged on being too much for me, no matter how much I tried to get on board.
All in all, I found the class a genuinely enjoyable way to spend a Saturday afternoon, though any serenity disappeared when I realised I had to travel across London with a rapidly dying phone. That said, I don’t necessarily think you’d need a specifically mental health-led workout to find that, especially given the cost. Boutique and more specialised classes like these can be prohibitive at upwards of £20 a pop (the Mindful Ride runs at £27.50 with a £5 donation to CALM). What's more, the fake rose scent and act of manifestation felt daunting and silly, distracting me from being in the moment.
If you’re in the right mental and physical space, this, to me, is the benefit of classes: not knowing what time it is, being unable to check your notifications and so focused on keeping up that, for once, you don’t have room in your brain for anxious thoughts. I truly don’t think the act of visualising myself as a flowering rose brought me anything for the rest of the day (except the lingering scent of rose petals mixed with sweat). If you're interested in trying out the Mindful Ride, it's one of the more enjoyable ways to spend an hour and 15 minutes, but if you have other activities that help you feel better, prioritise those. Being mindful of your movements can come from anywhere, not just a spin class.
You can find the next Mindful Ride at London's Balance Festival in April.
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