Health and Fitness

When Crying At The Gym Means You’re Doing Something Right


About two minutes into Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” I couldn’t feel my shoulders.

I was sitting cross-legged on a mat in a dance studio, nearly every inch of the floor covered by mats like mine, with the lights off and the music blaring, flapping my arms back and forth in some combination of a reverse fly and an aggressive chest pop.

All around me, sweating bodies were groaning and even yelling, as our instructor told us to “shed something” and to “put something on the fire.” To many, grunt-inducing discomfort doesn’t sound like the ideal workout. But I was there to put myself to the test.

In fact, Taryn Toomey’s 75-minute session, known simply as The Class, is designed for such pain. “You will be guided to dive into a place of discomfort to access and acknowledge the patterns that we go to when dealing with [pain],” the workout’s website explains. “We simply use the body to access these places.”

In other words, the workout would show me what I was made of, mentally. So far, I was spending more time cursing myself for committing to exercise before sunrise than exploring my psychological patterns. But in the mirrored walls of the studio, I watched as the faces around me melted into, if not clarity, certainly greater relaxation. While I didn’t see or hear any tears, someone is sobbing by the end in about one out of 10 sessions, said Toomey.

Practices like yoga are known for asanas that are meant to unlock emotions. But a new crop of candlelit cycling studios and leave-it-all-behind bodyweight workouts are targeting a sort of emotional release alongside physical activity, adopting a mind-body coupling once thought to be too spiritual for the average gym rat.

“I have cried in class many times,” Caroline Stone, a mother of two from Wellesley, Massachusetts, told The Boston Globe about her SoulCycle practice. “[T]he only thing that has gotten to me consistently [is] when they use the word grateful. I am very grateful that I can be there. I recognize that not everyone has that opportunity.”

More and more workouts are adopting a mind-body coupling once thought to be too spiritual for the average gym rat.

“During my first class I didn’t just cry, I sobbed,” McKenzie Hayes, a regular at Toomey’s studio, told Time. “Whether it’s your job or your relationships, I literally picture my emotional problems being slowly unstuck from my body and moved out.”

If a workout class is your only chance for self-reflection and stress management, it’s not surprising that exercise is enough to elicit an emotional experience. And, of course, the documented mental benefits of physical activity are many, ranging from reduced anxiety and greater energy to a sharper memory. But while workout euphoria is not without precedent — the runner’s high is a well-known, if elusive, perk — what’s different now is the focus.

Toomey encourages students to use the day’s frustrations — whatever they may be — for strength, but plenty of others rely on fitness as more of an escape from those thoughts. Picture the last person you saw on an elliptical machine. Chances are, she or he had headphones on and may have been flipping through the pages of a magazine or staring at a TV screen overhead.

“You’re moving your body, you’re not really with your body,” said Beth L. Haessig, PsyD, the president of the United States Association for Body Psychotherapy. “In fact, you’re trying to get away from your body’s experience, perhaps [because you’re] working it harder than it wants to be worked.”

Kinesiologists and body therapists agree that resisting the urge to zone out and instead refocusing on the mind-body connection is both novel and potentially important. In a culture of distraction, we aren’t necessarily cultivating the space we need to examine our emotional lives. And doing so during exercise could help us shed the stress, alongside a few pounds.

“It’s not the majority of exercise professionals who have tuned into [this], but the more enlightened ones understand that stress management is a very common reason that people have for exercise,” Panteleimon Ekkekakis, Ph.D., associate professor in the department of kinesiology at Iowa State University, told The Huffington Post.

In her work as a body psychotherapist, Haessig uses the body to bring about emotional change. Talk therapy, Haessig said, focuses on “language … just one expression of the human experience.” Using movement and breathing, various unconscious, conflicting thoughts can be brought to the surface, she said.

“I’m constantly bringing people into a place to watch their inner dialogue.”

Indeed, throughout The Class, Toomey told us to “be with our bodies,” to not turn away when a movement became uncomfortable, but to tune in to what we were thinking as we pushed through it. “Where are you? What are you saying? What’s your story?” she would ask us, prompting us to come back to the pain time and time again. “I’m constantly bringing people into a place to watch their inner dialogue.”

Instructor Taryn Toomey demonstrates a movement from The Class.
Image via Facebook

If where you are, as Toomey suggests, is a stressed place or a sad or confused state of mind, it’s no wonder that the lack of distraction can lead to catharsis and tears. Haessig agreed, though cautioned that it was additionally important to examine the feelings brought up. Otherwise, though relieving, the response can be “just throwing up in a way,” she said.

After approximately three minutes straight of burpees, I was just about ready to actually throw up — but I still wasn’t really examining my feelings. Still, the puddle of sweat accumulating on my mat served as a physical reminder that I was shedding something. I did leave feeling more awake and alert and ready to face the day, certainly one form of mental clarity.

Although exercise can make you feel emotional, expecting to find euphoria is probably a little too optimistic — especially for the vast majority of Americans who are more apt to seek stress relief from their couches than at a pricey fitness studio. Euphoria is “not universal, unfortunately,” Ekkekakis explained. That is especially true for the less-than-fit. To reach an emotional place, Ekkekakis theorized, a person’s level of fitness must be relatively high and they’d have to maintain a high level of intensity for at least 30 minutes. No problem for SoulCycle addicts, but not exactly friendly to the chronically sedentary.

While the research has yet to catch up, Haessig and Ekkekakis remain positive about this budding trend. “For so long, [society has] denigrated emotions,” said Haessig, “and this is a way, maybe, to reclaim in a powerful way the selfhood around emotional expression.”

Next, said Ekkekakis, classes will have to work on honing their structures to make sure they can re-create a positive experience consistently — or risk losing customers. “How can they guarantee that whatever that emotional outburst at the end is, how will they repeat it? If we knew the answer that would be a revolution within exercise science.”

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