With the closure of gyms during the Pandemic it was argued by many fitness enthusiasts and health experts that shutting these facilities would be detrimental to well-being. We explore whether this is the case and are gyms ready to support individuals after long periods of isolation?

In today’s blog, Dean Ashton, a qualified Nutritionist and Exercise expert and owner of Urban Reform, a personal training business in Manchester.

Mental health benefits of exercise:

Exercise releases chemicals like endorphins and serotonin that improve your mood. It can also get you out in the world, help to reduce any feelings of loneliness and isolation, and put you in touch with other people.

If you exercise regularly, it can reduce your stress and symptoms of mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, and help with recovery from mental health issues. It can also improve your sleep, which is important in many different ways.

Naturally, from the perspective of the fitness industry, there has been a growing sense of optimism about the capacity of their workforce to address this major public health challenge. This optimism was exemplified by the former UKActive chairman and founder of LA Fitness, Fred Turok (2013), who argued not only that the industry has the facilities, footprint, and expertise to deliver on the current health agendas, but that it is their responsibility to do so.

Which is a statement amplified now more then ever, but are we in the fitness industry doing enough? 

My belief is we are not, the evidence is clear to see that the inactivity gap has now widened according to Sport England (2020) and with mental health on the rise gyms need to prepare for this sudden influx of in-actives who may struggle integrating in social groups again.

The reason I delve into this subject is through my experience working with homelessness and mental health services, I spent a lot of time understanding those disengaged from society and how exercise and physical activity are mainly low priorities in terms of necessary day to day survival.

I managed to study and understand this sector and the detrimental effects the lack of essential nutrition and physical activity had on their general motivation, mood state and outlook on life.

The process of getting someone to go for a walk required more then just the energy of a enthusiastic fitness professional but more of a progressive approach from; building rapport and really understanding the person. The holistic ‘proactive approaches’ and partnership support networks involved for just one person really opened my eyes into what is required to build a person’s overall well-being and independence when they had hit rock bottom.

This is one of the reasons which has led me to believe that fitness facilities just haven’t got the resources or man power to deal with the necessary processes that come with a mental health crisis, that is predicted to follow after long periods of isolation. Fitness facilities have not got the time or money leading to less time being proactive and more time being reactive.

‘According to championing better work and better lives CIPD (2018), Organisations act on mental health in accordance with an event rather then to pre-empt a situation occurring’

But while support in a crisis situation is admirable, it would be better to prevent that crisis from happening in the first place. Although reactive approaches can successfully target individual needs on a case-by-case basis, more proactive approaches have the advantage of helping to nip some psychological conditions in the bud, reducing the risk of trigger scenarios for clients and staff with a more positive and welcoming atmosphere.

Being proactive means promoting awareness, providing training and integrating well-being within the organisation as a permanent fixture. It should also be a cost-effective activity and reach the entire workforce through different media. This could include: email updates, visual aids, intranet systems, and perhaps most crucially, face-to-face interactions.

According to research from Brunel University (2019) Nearly half (43%) of the 14-24 year-olds surveyed from across the UK said they would turn to their sports coach for emotional support and advice. Supporting the fact that those on the front line of health coaching are in a position where they are confided in when they are struggling.

A dedicated influence or measure of further education through Mental health first aid can help to improve mental health at work and for those we work with. If well-being is led by a facilitator, sometimes termed a “well-being champion”, then there is the opportunity to take a more objective audit of your practices as an organisation. This proactive approach can help ensure that the changes are embedded in the fitness facility DNA.


As gyms steadily open up again from the 12th April it’s important that UK active and umbrella fitness organisations are supporting facilities with template strategies such as sharing good practice of proactive approaches, whilst offering standardised guidelines for all coaches to be mental health first aid qualified; firstly to be aware and secondly understand when and who to signpost too. Fitness instructors are often overwhelmed and have limited knowledge to support mental and emotional health and this will give confidence to provide the right guidance.

About the author:

Name: Dean Ashton – owner of Urban Reform Manchester (www.urbanreformfit.co.uk)

Dean holds an MSc in Nutrition and has over 11 years experience as a Personal training and health coach. Working with range of clients from mental health services to low social economic backgrounds.

Dean’s ambition is to constantly challenge the misleading and confusing information which is often found in the health and fitness world and instead provide high quality and trusted information which helps people to improve their everyday health.