Enhancing clients’ mental health in lockdown and beyond

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By Liz Shaw, Health and Fitness Tutor for The Training Room

One in four people experience a mental health problem each year and, in England alone, one in six people experience feelings such as anxiety or depression in any given week – highlighting why it’s so incredibly important to raise awareness around the subject.

Whilst we all try to live through these social distancing measures, our mental health is under increased pressure. According to the Mental Health Foundation, almost a quarter of UK adults have felt loneliness because of Covid-19. The most affected group is 18-24 years old, with 44 per cent saying they’ve felt lonely. For others, there are additional challenges, such as balancing work and childcare. Who else is struggling with millions of Zoom calls whilst trying to home-school?

As PTs, we’re in a unique position to assist others with their mental health and positively enhance their lives. So, what steps can we take to help our clients, and ourselves, remain happy, positive, and energised during this period of social isolation and in the new world that arises from it, which is likely to involve more online coaching and training?


Recognising mental health issues in ourselves and clients

Most of us are struggling in some way during ‘lockdown,’ either mentally, physically, or both. However, we don’t always recognise what’s going on in our own bodies, and we can sometimes miss the symptoms of stress and other issues.

A very complex subject, signs of poor mental health can include snapping at your partner or kids, increased frustration over little things, finding it difficult to relax, being uncharacteristically aggressive (e.g. slamming down the TV remote or doors), finding it difficult to stick to tasks, apathy (struggling with motivation and energy, i.e. not being able to get out of bed in the morning), or lacking interest in others, which can be particularly tough if you’re working remotely with a team or having to look after children or elderly relatives, for example.

As PTs, it’s our job to help clients recognise these traits within themselves, whilst also considering our own actions and feelings, as we can’t perform to the best of our ability if we’re also having difficulties with mental health.

Connection is key

The bulk of psychologists would say that one, if not the, most important thing to maintain good mental health is human connection. When you think about our ancestors, the hunter-gathers, they would be out foraging or hunting for food in groups, then, in the evening, sitting around a campfire talking to each other. That’s what we were made to do: connect.

Of course, some people are more introverted or prefer their own company – which is an important consideration for a PT – but the vast majority of us need that connection.

During this time of social distancing, human connection, or adult company, is completely missing for some people. PTs can play a huge role in addressing that. We can be that connection for those living by themselves or who need the outlet of speaking to someone who’s not in their household.

If you’re delivering online training sessions, it’s a good idea to supplement these with virtual ‘check-ins,’ which can be done through Zoom or similar platforms. These provide the time to have a chat and to build that connection which, potentially, does your own mental health good, as well as your clients.

Maintaining connection with clients will not only provide them with a more positive experience during lockdown, but it could be the difference-maker in terms of retaining them longer-term. Not only that, if you learn how to create a strong personal connection online – which, frankly, is more difficult – you’ll be even better at doing so in real life. You’ll also be equipped with the online coaching/training skills you need if you want to continue expanding into this area.


Focusing on your clients’ holistic health

Blasting someone through a workout is not the only thing needed at the moment. Consequently, we’re seeing that PTs are naturally sliding into the role of a ‘lifestyle coach’ – offering different types of support for their clients beyond their normal service. I’ve always been a great believer in looking at people’s holistic health to support physical and mental wellbeing, so this represents a positive step forward for the profession, which will stand PTs in good stead moving forwards.

That said, it’s important to grasp the opportunities Covid-19 presents with both hands to deliver a better service for clients when this time is over. For example, online coaching/training is a great way for PTs to hone their emotional intelligence and communication skills because you’re made to work harder than you would face-to-face. It’s not as easy to pick up on a person’s mood or form during online PT sessions, so you have to become more aware of these factors and adapt your approach accordingly.

Pay close attention to the small things; their body language and facial expressions. And make sure your online set-up enables you to see and hear your client clearly to give them the best instruction possible. Exercise and mental health are completely connected, so a great session can really do wonders for your client’s all-round wellbeing.

Instead of taking the ‘standard approach’ in initial consultations when exploring a client’s motivations and barriers to fitness, try to have a deeper conversation that unpicks the different layers, discussing their day-to-day life – sleep, stress levels, work-life balance, etc. But don’t be abrupt; be natural, let the conversation flow, and it will gradually ease out. This is where the regular virtual check-ins really come into their own, allowing you to keep on building that bigger picture, so you’re able to continue tailoring your clients’ programmes to support their physical and mental wellbeing.

Training with care

Throughout lockdown, we should be encouraging our PT clients to stick to whatever routine is possible; whatever works for them right now. We shouldn’t be trying to push anything onto them, but instead treating their individual situations with care. Remember that lockdown is not the same for everyone. On one hand, you could be coaching someone in a one-bedroom city apartment without a garden and, on the other hand, someone in a country house with acres of land. Family situations may also differ largely.

Therefore, we need to understand as much about the individual’s environment and lifestyle as possible, notably, equipment, space, and time available. With so many variations in people’s circumstances, it really challenges us to get creative with how we deliver our PT services which, in itself, can be stimulating for the brain, with a positive impact on mental health. It can also be great fun for clients, who get to experience training sessions in a whole new way. Strength training with wine bottles, anyone?

Again, it’s about taking the opportunity to enhance your skillset. If you’ve traditionally focused on strength and conditioning training, this could be your chance to start offering something different, such as mobilisation, breathing, or visualisation exercises – particularly helpful for those who have become more sedentary in lockdown, with more stress to manage. This will enable you to provide a more holistic service to your clients – now and in the future – so that you become known as a PT who truly cares about each individual. To begin with, these extra services could be free, monetising these further down the line.

There are many great resources out there that will allow you to build up a basic knowledge in various aspects of PT, which can be expanded over time. An alternative to this is teaming up with other professionals specialising in different areas to your own. Could you refer your clients to a breathing practitioner who, in turn, refers their clients back to you for other services? Great cross-promotion lies in wait!

Other ways to ‘train with care’ are creating downloadable documents, videos, or voice recordings for your clients that they can consume in their own time. For example, you could provide your own tips on ways to enhance mental health, building up your PT toolkit as you go.

What does the return of face-to-face PT mean?

Now that outdoor personal training is allowed on a one-to-one basis (as of the 13th May), provided the government’s social distancing and hygiene guidelines are observed, this will have a positive impact on the mental health of PTs and their clients.

Not only will it allow people to escape their homes and return to their PT sessions, benefiting from the feel-good endorphins released through exercise and the social interaction, but it’s also a massive relief for many PTs who can get back to doing what they love, start earning money again, and experience the physical and mental benefits of training with their clients.

The question is, will everyone rush back? It’s difficult to say so soon. Whilst some clients may jump at the chance of regaining some normality, others may not be ready quite yet. And although people can go out and exercise with a PT, there are limitations to what can be done, especially given that PTs have been instructed to keep equipment to a minimum.

During lockdown, if you’ve proven yourself to be a great support, mentor, and lifestyle coach, not just a PT, then clients may be just as inclined to continue their online sessions, rather than transitioning outdoors, until they feel more confident about the situation. Whatever the outcome, if you’ve been working holistically, then you should be in a good position, as clients will want to train with you regardless of where that is.

If you’re a gym-based PT, there’s still uncertainty around when facilities will reopen, which can increase your own vulnerability to mental health conditions, so why not use this time to broaden your horizons and expand your skillset, either as an online or outdoor PT, giving yourself greater options to navigate through this time, whatever it may bring?

Summing up…

What this all boils down to is taking a personal and proactive approach, not being afraid to try new things and think outside the box. The more care you take in getting to know your clients in the holistic sense – especially within the lockdown phase – the better you’ll be able to support their physical and mental health both now and in the years to come.

To learn more about The Training Room and its industry-leading PT courses, visit: www.thetrainingroom.com/courses/health-and-fitness

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