Dr. Erin Nitschke by Dr. Erin Nitschke

For the better part of the last 18 months, the world was uniquely challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic, which required the health and fitness industry, its professionals and the clients we serve to make a sudden and dramatic shift. In essence, the industry and its consumers were asked to make an almost immediate behavior change (which we know is not always a linear or swift process). With guidelines loosening and mandates expiring, we can now make conscious efforts to return to a “better normal.”

As we work to make changes, yet again, we may find ourselves (and our clients) challenged to reacclimatize to a face-to-face environment. For many, this can result in anxious feelings and noticeable concern. Let’s look at how we can make this transition—for ourselves and our clients—palatable and reassuring.

Acknowledging Pandemic (Pre and Post) Anxiety and Fear

By nature, humans are creatures of habit, and we dislike uncertainty and disruption of routine. This, in part, is why behavior change is difficult. The pandemic forced us all into an immediate state of isolation. Businesses closed and moved to delivery services, schools provided curricula in multiple online formats, and gyms and studios were required to close entirely. While remote work and social distancing were necessary to disrupt the spread of COVID-19, research suggests the prevalence of mental health issues increased as people were isolated for several months at a time. And, not surprisingly, the pandemic provoked rising feelings of fear and anxiety. Now that we are moving toward a post-pandemic or reentry into society and usual activities, it’s important to recognize that the fear and anxiety haven’t simply gone away.

“People are feeling overwhelmed, uncertain, anxious, helpless, frustrated, stressed and exhausted,” psychiatrist Dr. Lisa MacLean told the American Medical Association. That is a long list of emotions and concerns we and our clients are experiencing.

While many people are excited to lose the mask mandate and return to social engagements, others remain concerned about what returning to normal looks and feels like. By recognizing the mental health impact that pandemic life has had on all of us, we can begin to normalize and come to terms with them—and we can find additional ways to cope and reacclimatize.

What You Can Do for Yourself and Your Clients

While there are multiple methods of coping with stress, anxiety and the prospect of societal reentry, no two clients (or professionals) will respond to these methods in quite the same way. Treat each client as a unique individual and engage in conversations about how you each feel about returning to these altered environments.

Of course, it’s important to extend this same grace to yourself and conduct a “gut check” about returning to face-to-face experiences. If you find that you’re feeling anxious or uncertain, use these strategies to help you reduce your anxiety and make your transition back to the gym or studio a smooth one:

  • Practice self-care often. Returning to a “normal” environment can increase stress and anxiety, so take some additional time to pause and reflect.
  • Have an honest conversation about what you need to succeed mentally as you return. If you feel it is too soon to return or want to return but prefer to still ask clients to use masks, that is your option. Honor that choice.
  • Be mindful of pandemic fatigue. Being isolated for a significant period is taxing, but so is the return to normal activities. Rest when needed, as your need for rest is likely higher than it was during pre-pandemic days.
  • Practice mindful breathing or other daily meditation exercises to help manage stress.
  • Start each day with a self-check to evaluate how you’re feeling and if you are experiencing any anxiety or concerns.
  • Communicate with your clients.
  • Continue to offer virtual training options should the need arise and if that is a skill you’d like to hone.
  • Stay current on information related to the pandemic (but don’t overdo it and drive yourself crazy).
  • Cultivate your referral and support network. Ensure you have one or two mental health professionals available to whom you can refer clients should the need arise.

Chances are, many of your clients are experiencing similar feelings when contemplating the return to face-to-face training and/or coaching option. The most significant thing you can do is to continue to support your clients through their health journey. Here are some strategies to help you accomplish this:

  • Have an open and honest conversation with your clients about their preferences, concerns and feelings surrounding the return. Be sure to provide clients options for a virtual experience should they want to continue with you but feel apprehensive about returning to an in-person environment.
  • Encourage your clients to perform a daily self-check-in to identify how they’re feeling.
  • Recommend self-care as part of their workout and coaching plan.
  • Offer outdoor sessions if your geographic climate allows (not too hot, not too cold).
  • Continue to promote and share the sanitation practices of your gym or studio.
  • Normalize wearing a mask, if safe to do so, during sessions if it provides additional comfort to your client(s).
  • Meet your clients with empathy and where they are by acknowledging any feelings of anxiety or concern they might be experiencing.
  • Start slowly. If clients have concerns, begin by offering shorter, face-to-face sessions one or two times a week as opposed to the usual volume you offered or scheduled prior to the pandemic.

Ultimately, the best thing you can do during this transition period is to continue to support your clients and prioritize their needs while honoring and respecting your own. We are in this together.