The new year often brings a surge of visitors to the gym. Exercise’s impact on mental health includes everything from short-term mood enhancement to lessening depression symptoms. Now, a different type of gym is popping up. Some take insurance, and they offer a variety of mindfulness options or ways to train your brain.
Brain gyms, mindfulness gyms or wellness gyms — regardless of the name, the concept is the same. Just like you’d go to a physical gym to take a cardio class or exercise your body, here you exercise your mind. They’re popping up nationally and internationally. Different businesses' concepts vary. Some places offer flotation therapy, sound baths or meditation.
"We take care of our body and we take care of our soul. But do we take care of our mind? And so we like the thought of actually doing a workout for the brain because the brain needs it just like the rest of our body," Shelli Myles told Newsy. Myles is a licensed counselor and co-founder of The Mind Gym, a mindfulness and brain gym in Centennial, Colo.
At the Mind Gym, clients can participate in talk therapy with a licensed counselor, meditation, or neurofeedback brain training, in which the gym says a person’s brain is conditioned via rewards by watching a show while the screen dims and brightens.
"We record brain waves with your eyes open and then your eyes shut. And that is sent off to a doctor who analyzes it and puts it into mapping so that we can see where the brain is not regulating," Myles said. "We can reward it by really kind of working it out. It doesn't fix everything, but it makes things so much better because we can get you to regulate better."
Clients of the gym say their visits helped with sleep quality and symptom management for things like pain, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I was sleeping maybe two to four hours. And that had been going on for the last two years. That first session, I slept for almost five hours," Angela Pennington, a Mind Gym client, told Newsy.
Neurology experts have mixed opinions on the benefits of this new trend of mindfulness gyms.
"I feel it's a little early. I feel like, you know, as a researcher, I would like us to really be confident that the interventions have been proven before before they go into mind gyms," Michelle Hampson, a neurofeedback researcher at the Yale School of Medicine, told Newsy. "There's no neurofeedback protocol that has really reached the standard of being considered evidence-based treatment. It doesn't mean it won't work. There is a possibility it will work. It just hasn't been proven to work."
Dr. Ira Chang, neurologist and director of neuro critical care at Swedish Medical Center in Englewood, Colo., told Newsy: "I think that's a great concept. The idea of treating your mental health, the whole mind-body connection. ... As neurologists we see patients who have disorders that ultimately are likely caused or triggered by stress reactions or anxiety reactions, autonomic nervous system dysfunction. So we have always been proponents of trying to treat the subconscious-level thinking or triggers or things that can affect someone's day-to-day life and reactions."
Dr. Chang added that she thinks mind gyms are lessening stigma that can come with addressing mental wellness, but they're ideal for people who are stressed, not those dealing with mental illness.
Access can also be a challenge. These brain gyms can be costly — one gym Newsy found in Michigan and California charges $75 for a float session to $159 for a package for one day’s visit. In Colorado, the Mind Gym takes private insurance, and clients must be referred by a health care provider. Despite that, each client Newsy spoke with at this gym said the brain training gave them something else for their mind: hope.
"I think that there are good days and bad days for sure. But I do think that there can be hope," Pennington said.