Amid the exercise equipment in fitness trainer Erin Oprea’s home gym, you’ll find something unexpected: plants. Oodles of them. The Nashville-based trainer-to-the-stars (she’s coached some of country music’s biggest names including Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini, and Maren Morris) has stashed more than 40 plants in the converted-garage space, which doubles as the studio for her app-based strength training program Pretty Muscles.
Oprea began stepping up her greenery game a couple of years ago when the COVID-19 pandemic first rocked the globe, a time when people’s fitness routines were disrupted by gym closures and stress levels skyrocketed. The plants are apt mascots for the new age of fitness that has taken root in the wake of the pandemic’s upheaval. “I think plants are symbols of happiness,” says Oprea—something we’re craving not just from our leafy companions, but also from our exercise routines.
Prior to the pandemic, physical-health outcomes including weight loss, strength building, and appearance goals topped the list of motivators for exercising. Today, we’re more motivated by mental-health outcomes including stress reduction and anxiety relief.
“Mental health has taken over the world of fitness,” says Oprea. “The realization of what fitness can do for you … has just gotten a lot broader. It’s not all about looks anymore.”
The benefits of exercise for mental health are well-documented. Regular, moderate workouts can elevate mood, decrease stress, and ease anxiety and depression.
That improved mental state can have a ripple effect on your overall quality of life. “When you mentally feel better, everything is better,” says Oprea. “Your work is better, you sleep better, you eat better … fitness just makes you feel better all around.”
While workouts can boost your outlook, the converse is true as well: Your outlook can boost your workouts. “Positive self-talk … can be the key to breakthroughs in physical activity,” says Jessica Schatz, a Los Angeles-based Pilates instructor and integrative wellness coach whose notable clients have included fashion mogul Ashley Olsen, NBA player Wesley Matthews, and former Alvin Ailey dancer Olivia Bowman-Jackson.
Research has shown that in a range of sports, positive self-messaging can improve endurance and performance. When the going gets tough during a workout and you feel like quitting, Schatz recommends countering any mental negativity with mantras like “You’ve got this,” “I am strong,” and “I am capable.”
She draws the infinity symbol with her fingers when explaining the relationship between our physical and mental fortitude because “you can’t see where one starts and where one ends,” she says. And that may be part of why, in this new age of fitness, we’re seeking not just to work out, but also to work “in.”
Mindfulness—the practice of being aware of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and/or environment on a moment-by-moment basis—has become a wellness buzzword. And for good reason: It’s been shown to improve conditions ranging from depression to hypertension. Applied to fitness, mindfulness involves tuning into your body’s ever-changing needs and tailoring your workouts accordingly. “Every session can’t be balls to the wall,” says Oprea.
People often assume that the former Marine—who served two tours of duty in Iraq—trains like a drill sergeant. Instead, Oprea emphasizes balance. Sometimes that means a hard HIIT workout, while other times it means going for a walk and talking. “I base my workouts on my clients’ needs [on a] day-to-day basis,” she says. “I think that you’ve got to listen to what your body’s telling you.”
Schatz concurs: “Our body is sending us messages all the time … Never sacrifice the intuition of the body for the glory of the ego.” Her Core Expert classes—which blend elements of Pilates, yoga, biomechanics, and functional fitness and can be streamed via her website and YouTube channel—aim to help participants strengthen not only their core muscles, but also their mental and spiritual resiliency.
The more we can get in touch with our body’s messages, Schatz says, “the more we can understand what it is in life that makes us feel better”—both on and off the exercise mat.
Attitude of gratitude
In pre-pandemic times, we may have gotten bent out of shape when our favorite fitness class was booked. But after adjusting to pandemic disruptions to our exercise routines, we’ve learned that there’s more than one way to stay fit and that the gym isn’t the only place to get our fix.
That shift in mindset from scarcity to abundance can benefit us even as the pandemic wanes. Seeing opportunity instead of a lack of it motivates us to seek satisfying ways to exercise no matter what obstacles we encounter, from injury to aging.
Physical fitness promotes longevity and protects against depression in our later years. Yet Oprea points out that many people develop a negative attitude toward exercise as they grow older, along the lines of “I can’t do that. I’m too old.”
To flip that script, Oprea encourages people to stay open and flexible to novel activities and up the happiness factor. “You’ve got to find what truly brings you joy,” says the 45-year-old, who loves to twerk and will do so whenever the opportunity arises. “How can you dance and not smile?”
That joyful perspective sums up the essence of this new age of fitness: embracing gratitude for everything our bodies can do and celebrating all the ways movement can uplift us.
Here are some favorite supplements for supporting our bodies during workouts.
- Collagen improves joint functionality, helps build lean muscle, and promotes muscle recovery.
- Beet root contains nitric oxide, which increases blood flow and boosts oxygen to fuel muscles.
- Magnesium is vital to the process of energy metabolism and assists in normal muscle function.
- CBD may significantly improve sleep quality. Poor sleep affects everything from your cardiovascular endurance to your muscle strength.