Healthy Mind

This ‘Mental Health Gym’ Wants You to Improve Your ‘Emotional Fitness’

Emily Laurence

Photo: Provided; Art: W+G Creative
If your health goal is to get stronger physically, you pretty much know what to do. Maybe you dust off the dumbbells in your garage and fire up some virtual classes on Zoom so the instructor can keep an eye on your form. Or perhaps you sign up for a whole bootcamp-style program at your local gym, with classes meeting on a regular basis. When it comes to physical health, taking classes to meet your fitness goals has been the norm for decades. But the same logic hasn’t been used followed when it comes to emotional health.

One startup is hoping to change that. Founded by Alexa Meyer and psychologist Emily Anhalt, PsyD, Coa is a “gym for your mental health,” offering therapist-led classes with the goal of making class-goers emotionally stronger. Similar to fitness classes, you can choose to just attend one class ($25) or you can sign up for a whole eight-week series ($30 per class). There’s also the option to get some personal training for your mind, aka work one-on-one with a therapist ($190-$250, with a sliding scale available).

Intrigued? Here, Meyer and Dr. Anhalt explain more about the concept behind Coa, what someone can expect from their first class, and how they hope it continues to evolve in the future.

W+G: The concept of a mental health gym is completely new. How did the idea come about?

Alexa Meyer: Our mission at Coa is to make mental health [resources] as common, accessible, and fun as physical fitness. Society has come a long way in making physical fitness proactive in groups and community, but when it comes to mental health, there’s still a lot of stigma and difficulty figuring out where to go to get what you need. The lack of community can feel isolating, perpetuating the stigma.

When we set out to launch the world’s first gym for mental health, we envisioned it being brick and mortar studios all around the world, but also virtual classes so that people who didn’t have access to the physical locations could join. Initially, our goal was to open the physical locations first and then focus on expanding it digitally, but then COVID-19 happened…

How did the two of you get connected and decide to partner together?

Emily Anhalt, PsyD: We actually met on Twitter many years ago. Alexa was planning to do a mental health pop-up. She got the idea for the pop-up walking around New York City and seeing all the places people could go to improve their physical health, like SoulCycle, Equinox, and 24 Hour Fitness, but when it came to therapy, all the therapists’ offices were hidden away. Her idea was, what does it look like to have an equally welcoming space for mental health?

She started to put together a pop-up, but she wanted a therapist’s perspective, so she reached out to me on Twitter. We put our heads together to figure out how we could make the pop-ups really successful, doing 10 of them across the country. At the pop-ups, you could either be paired with a therapist for a one-on-one session or attend a class, hosted by me. Sixty percent of the people ended up sticking with the therapist they were matched with at the pop-up. They were really successful, and then we were really off to the races.

How did you decide what the Coa classes should focus on?

EA: I’ve been a clinical psychologist for 11 years and have always specifically been interested in what it looks like to work on your mental health when you’re high functioning and doing well but want to build up your resilience so you’re better able to handle whatever life throws at you. When I was in grad school, I did a big research project, interviewing 100 psychologists about what it takes for someone to be emotionally healthy. From this research came seven traits emotionally healthy people tend to have: self-awareness, empathy, mindfulness, curiosity, playfulness, resilience, and communication. So Coa’s curriculum is based around these seven traits.

What can someone expect when they attend a class? What is it like?

EA: Our biggest priority was making the classes very experiential so someone isn’t just talked at for 90 minutes. The classes are structured with a learn-exercise-discuss format. First, the therapist leading the class teaches a framework [connected to one of the seven traits]. Then, people go into breakout rooms with other people, which is a place to share your own struggles as well as hear other people’s. After the breakout rooms, the therapist leads a discussion about what came up for different people. We’re presenting ideas and information and then helping people figure out what it looks like in their life and their unique circumstances.

How do you make sure the space feels safe so people feel encouraged to share?

EA: We require people to turn their cameras on because it’s a lot to ask of someone to be vulnerable, staring at someone who isn’t really there. For people who don’t feel comfortable being on camera, we offer different types of classes: Q&As with therapists on specific topics and people can share their comments and questions in [Zoom in-meeting chat]. So that’s one way for people to try a class when they’re not ready to jump all the way in yet. But once you join the classes, what we’re really trying to say is that there’s nothing wrong with working on yourself in this way; it doesn’t have to be a secret. And people are truly very supportive and wonderful to each other.

AM: People also interact in small ways before moving to the breakout rooms. For example, they are asked to share simply their name or how they’re feeling in the Zoom chat box. And we have interactive polls too. So there are small ways people open up before moving into the more intensive questions.

A major inspiration for Coa was to create spaces that are as welcoming and bold as fitness studios, and not hidden away. What do you envision the physical Coa spaces looking like?

AM: When people walk into a Coa space, we want them to feel safe and comfortable, but also energized—similar to how you might feel when walking into SoulCycle. The [overall feel] is modern and fresh. Also, each studio will be on the ground floor because it’s important to us that they are visible and welcoming, just like a storefront. There will also be a cafe and community lounge in the front as well as a classroom space. There will be a therapist’s office in the back because therapy will still be private and confidential. The hope is that people will take a class and then want to hang out in the cafe and community space after, maybe for a cup of tea with other people in their class or just to sit and journal.

That’s amazing. People will want to hang out there all the time!

AM: I hope so! We’re so excited about the future of Coa.

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