“The mental fitness revolution will be as big as—or bigger than—the physical fitness revolution.”
As a society, the importance of physical health is widely acknowledged—even celebrated. So why don’t we do the same for mental and emotional fitness?
Dr. Emily Anhalt and Alexa Meyer are working to change that. They cofounded Coa, the first mental health gym, in February 2021 to help teach people how to approach emotional fitness from a place of strength, excitement and community rather than one of isolation and fear.
Below, Emily and Alexa speak with us about emotional push-ups, why we should treat our emotional health like we treat our physical health and their predictions for the mental fitness revolution.
What is Coa?
Alexa Meyer: Coa is a gym for mental health. We’re all about helping people work on their mental fitness as proactively as they do their physical fitness.
We offer two things, very similar to what a gym [for physical fitness] would offer: group classes that are therapist led and one-on-one sessions—sort of like the personal training of mental health. And all of this is grounded in community, because we believe that it’s a lot easier to do this work when you’re surrounded by other people.
How did you come up with the idea for Coa?
Alexa: I used to work in advertising and branding, and then I started working in tech. I was getting really burnt out and started to question my overall fulfillment. [I asked myself,] “How do I take care of my emotions the same way I take care of my body?”
I’d come home from work and hit a workout class, but what about working on my stress, on anxiety, on my confidence? I looked around and I did not see any solutions that could help me do that. And I wondered, if we have gyms for physical health and physical fitness, why are we not doing the same thing for mental health? That was the ignition for Coa.
Dr. Emily Anhalt: My coming into this amazing vision that Alexa had had a lot to do with the idea that, as a clinical psychologist, I’ve seen that people want the answer to better emotional and mental health to be quick and easy. Of course, that’s what we want, because none of us want to be facing our pain or going through tough things. But just like you probably shouldn’t just take a diet pill instead of exercising—not that we’re anti-medication—I believe that there is really important work to do on our mental and emotional health that takes time and dedication.
We wanted there to be an easy way to start that work, since we know the work itself is not always easy. We’re really proud of the way in which Coa is actionable, experiential, community-based and also really grounded in clinical integrity and ethics.
Typically, mental health maintenance has been an individual, private practice. What is the benefit of opening it up to a community-oriented format?
Alexa: When you think about removing stigma, and you think about creating behavior change, it’s all about visibility.
You walk around the world today, and you see gyms everywhere. But when it comes to mental health, traditionally it’s been a very hidden experience, and that perpetuates some of the hesitation and the stigma and the shame. So, while therapy is confidential, we really believe that bringing visibility to the practice of working on your mental health is what’s going to help drive down that stigma. You’re seeing that other people are doing it, you’re seeing that you’re not alone in the challenges you’re facing, and you’re able to practice things in real time with other human beings.
Emily: There is an individual component to this. But the ability to do that individual work is greatly aided by the support of doing it amongst others.
When you go to the gym, you have to lift your own weights; no one can lift your weights for you. But it’s a hell of a lot easier to go to the gym and lift those weights when you have a spot, and when there are other people lifting weights around you, and when there’s a general culture of it being something to be proud of, to work on yourself in this way. And that’s what we’re working to change with Coa; not only how people do the work, but how people feel about doing the work with each other.
Why should people approach their mental health like they approach their physical health?
Emily: Pretty much any struggle or issue we have in life is likely going to be easier to prevent than it is to fix. [For example,] you probably shouldn’t wait until you’re diagnosed with early signs of heart disease to do cardio. With our mental health, we’re often made to feel like we have to wait until things are completely falling apart to get support. But it’s actually a lot more doable to work on these things in an ongoing way.
The other reason is that our mental health is every day. Life is made up of relationships, and our relationships are very much determined by how healthy of a relationship we have with ourselves. Emotional fitness is essentially strengthening your relationship with yourself and with others.
How did you design the classes?
Emily: The class curriculum is based on research I did about eight years ago. I wanted to understand this idea of a more proactive approach to emotional health, so I did an interpretive phenomenological analysis (it’s a type of qualitative research).
I interviewed a hundred psychologists and a hundred entrepreneurs about what makes someone emotionally healthy. What came out were seven traits of emotional fitness—things that both psychologists and entrepreneurs alike agree you will see people working on if they have good emotional health. Those seven things are: self-awareness, empathy, mindfulness, curiosity, playfulness, resilience and communication.
All of our classes are about these seven traits; some deep dive into the traits individually, sometimes we go across all of them. But the idea is, what does an emotional push-up look like in any of these seven categories, and how do you do them? In each class, we take somewhat of a complex psychological concept and create a really actionable framework around it.
Traditionally, mental health has been labeled as taboo or shameful. How is Coa changing that?
Emily: Our belief at Coa is that stigma is changed through experience. So, one of the things [Coa is doing] is just helping people experience mental health in a different way. You don’t have to be broken; nothing has to be wrong with you.
Part of the reason why mental health is so stigmatized is that every single one of us has tough things to face. And by pushing it away as a society, it’s our way of pushing it away within ourselves. So [Coa is] saying, “look, we know it’s hard, we know it’s tough to know where to start, but we’re here with you and we’re going to do it together.”
Alexa: One thing I’ll add is that because of a lack of visibility of therapists in society, there’s often a fear of what therapists are even like. We believe that therapists as emotional fitness instructors can be as engaging and as relatable as your favorite fitness instructor. And so, every clinician we hire to teach at Coa is a licensed therapist, but they’re also amazing facilitators that people really engage with and fall in love with. And that’s been really helpful in removing the stigma.
What’s next for Coa?
Alexa: Expanding our offerings to different challenges and different populations. We’re rolling out classes for parenting, new moms, new managers, getting through a breakup and overcoming a fertility challenge, and we’re supporting new markets across the country and eventually around the world.
We do really believe in physical experiences in addition to digital, so post-COVID we’ll be launching in-person gyms to serve as hubs for our community.
What do you predict for the future of mental and emotional fitness?
Alexa: I believe that the mental fitness revolution will be as big as—or bigger than—the physical fitness revolution. So, it won’t be out of the ordinary to come home from work and hit a mental fitness or emotional fitness class with the same excitement, the same level of frequency as you do physical fitness classes.
As a result of this shift, with people really starting to care about their mental health and investing in it proactively rather than reactively, [I believe] we’ll see a reduction in the rates of severe burnout, stress, anxiety—things that have continued to be on the incline in the last decade, and even more so with COVID, because we haven’t been doing this work proactively, because there was no space for it.
Emily: Right now, the world is really positioned around this idea of, “I’ll take care of you if you take care of me.” But I think we’re moving toward a world where we say to each other, “I’ll take care of me for you, if you take care of you for me.”
Headshot courtesy of Kendall B. Schiff