If you are a woman living in this culture, an article or advertisement has probably already told you today that you should be exercising more. Not even a particular amount, really—just…more. This encouragement often comes accompanied by a photo of a thin, young woman running in front of a sunset. And while a lot of these articles or advertisements make a cursory nod towards “empowerment” or “mental health,” the message is clear: you should probably also be a thin, young woman running in front of a sunset.
When we are bombarded with body-shaming and narrow definitions of fitness every day, it can feel like an act of rebellion to just check out of exercise completely. But if you are someone who has felt chills of recognition when reading about of the ways that trauma can live on in our bodies, you might long for an entry point into building physical strength that doesn’t feel like opting into the gym industrial complex.
But how to safely engage with something that feels so fraught? You don’t have to go it alone. There is a crew of personal trainers across Canada who are bringing something fantastic to their approaches: a background in counselling.
Karine Silverwoman runs a Toronto-based personal training business called Macho Femme Fitness. She also has a personal practice as a social worker. From her perspective, the link between mind and body is a crucial one. “The more I’ve done my therapy work,” Silverwoman explains, “the more I’ve realized that you can’t just do talk therapy with trauma. You have to go to the body.”
For a lot of people, having an elevated heart rate and breaking out in a sweat are an indication your workout is working. Unfortunately, for many of us, those same symptoms can also feel like the throes of a panic attack. Having a personal trainer who understands that overlap can change everything. Unfortunately, this isn’t an approach that every trainer is equipped to take on. “You can’t work with people’s bodies without understanding the basics of how trauma manifests,” Silverwoman insists. “With my clients, I am able to take into account what’s happening with their triggers. Because I have this therapy and body analysis, I know how to plan a session that will help support my client’s nervous system.”
In Edmonton, Tori Lunden has completely stopped doing social work, deciding instead to focus on building her clients’ emotional well-being through physical activity. She calls her blog Bad At Yoga to help push back against the idea that perfection is required during any kind of exercise. “Back in my social work days, I found the physical side of healing was often overlooked,” she explains. “It’s been my experience that movement practices provide a much-needed way of processing the complex effects of trauma that can’t always be found in traditional counselling methods.”
Ottawa-based Melissa Staddon echoes this perspective. While completing her MA in Educational Counselling, she found it was lifting weights that became the core of her mental and emotional self-care. “When you’re lifting weights, it’s just you and the weight,” she says. “It became a great place to focus any negative energy I was experiencing.” This discovery ultimately steered Staddon away from doing talk therapy in favour of becoming a personal trainer, because she wanted to share this perspective with others.
“As a woman, I am hyper-aware of the pressures to not only look a certain way, but to always be kind and caring and put others first. Put that all together and that leaves little room for, well, us,” says Staddon. “Self-care is usually the first thing to go. Now, my background in counselling comes into play every single time I train clients.”