Dan Hancock is a personal trainer putting mental health at the top of the agenda. A lifelong passion for fitness has allowed him to establish himself as one of the most respected trainers in Scotland’s Forth Valley, opening his first professional training space in Stirling in January 2020. Focussing on the connection between mental and […]
Dan Hancock is a personal trainer putting mental health at the top of the agenda. A lifelong passion for fitness has allowed him to establish himself as one of the most respected trainers in Scotland’s Forth Valley, opening his first professional training space in Stirling in January 2020. Focussing on the connection between mental and physical wellbeing, Hancock offers an informal yet committed approach to fitness that places the individual needs of clients at the centre of every session.
It’s this passion for the personal that has inspired Hancock’s latest project, MINDfit. Providing free fitness classes to individuals experiencing difficulties with their mental health, the project surfaced from an idea shared on social media to become the first community-interest company of its kind within the UK. Sessions are tailored to those who may feel intimidated by the gym setting, with a supportive approach prioritised for individuals experiencing feelings of anxiety or depression.
The Mind Map spoke with Dan to find out more about his journey with MINDfit, the benefits of exercise for mental health, and his advice for maintaining a motivated mindset.
Why did you decide to make mental health your focus as a personal trainer?
I’ve worked in the fitness industry for five years and it became apparent to me a few years ago that a lot of clients will come to me and initially say, “I want to lose weight” or “I want to look like this,” but once you delve deeper, this is actually fuelled by something else.
When I started to really focus on my clients and find out more about them, I would ask them more questions – mainly, “Why do you want to do this?” They probably got sick of me asking really.
For some, the motivation was deep-rooted and wasn’t necessarily poor mental health. However, sometimes there would be something more serious going on like an abusive relationship, or depression, or really bad anxiety. A lot of the time it was to do with their mental health; very low self-esteem or lack of confidence.
I would ask them, “If you didn’t end up being the size and shape that you want to be, but I told you that you would be totally happy, would you accept that?”
Most of the time, they would say yes. From there I started to realise that these desires were to do with their mental health and how they feel as opposed to their psychical body.
The fitness industry is a very saturated market and it’s all to do with aesthetics and the way that we look. To be honest, I didn’t know a single personal trainer on Instagram who would put up a ‘before and after’ picture of their client as an individual rather than a physical transformation or weight-loss goal.
From a business point of view, of course I saw this as a gap in the market, but I cared about it so much on a personal level because I was able to see my clients transform as people as opposed to just transforming their weight.
You aren’t afraid to highlight flaws in the fitness industry. Can you talk a little more about that and why you like to offer a positive alternative?
I just think there’s a massive irony around the industry that needs to change. It’s so ironic that gyms are supposed be a place for people to come and feel better about themselves but they can in turn do the opposite.
If there is a gym with big body builders in one corner and toned females in GymShark leggings in the other – and of course that’s no disrespect to them, they are working hard – it can still be so intimidating for new people. It could prevent them going to the gym or make them feel even more insecure.
If a trainer’s heart is in it because they want to help other people, that’s fantastic. However, there are also methods that some trainers will employ that are harmful for clients – extreme calorie counting, or young and impressionable guys being encouraged to use steroids. Just because it works for these trainers doesn’t mean it would work for everyone.
What inspired you to develop a scheme like MINDfit in particular?
There were a couple of young boys in my local area who sadly committed suicide. I didn’t know them well but in a place like Stirling, you get to know everyone in some way. Then there were also some high profile cases, like Mike [Thalassitis] from ‘Love Island’ and Avicii.
If someone commits suicide despite having a family or kids, for example, the first thing people usually say is, “How could they do that?” I wanted to take that head on and emphasise that if people are ending their lives despite those things, surely we don’t really understand suicide at all?
I wrote a post about that online, just to put my thoughts down. At the end of the post, I said that I know how much exercise can help mental health and that anyone who is struggling could come to me for a free personal training session. That post blew up and was shared loads, which led to a huge amount of uptake on the offer. Over the course of a year, I did personal training sessions with around 60 people.
The end goal was never to get clients from it. However, I then found that the majority who enjoyed it did want to be clients. I took a step back then and really thought about it. I knew I was doing a good thing and I knew I was helping people, but if I was tapping into potentially vulnerable people and turning a profit off it for my own business then I wasn’t comfortable with that.
I also knew I didn’t have enough time to do this all regularly so I thought about how I could do it on a larger scale, and that’s how the MINDfit concept came about and everything fell into place.
There wasn’t a single company dedicated to offering personal training sessions or classes for free. People might also get referred to do exercise by their doctor, but they might not want to go to a gym or they don’t know how to approach personal trainers. That’s why welcoming classes became a big part of it.
I registered MINDfit as a community interest company last November as opposed to a charity, because a community interest company is allowed to turn profit to then be reinvested back into the company. I think this also helps with the informality of the sessions, putting it out there that I’m not a qualified counsellor or therapist but this still really works.
How does a MINDfit session differ from a regular personal training session?
If you stripped it back, the way that I work doesn’t look a whole lot different because MINDfit is still all about getting to know the client, their background, and how we can help them.
The main way that it differs – especially in group training sessions – is that we really need to focus on being inclusive and getting people through the door and into their first class. Although we’re doing everything we can to take away those barriers that might put people off going to the gym, they will still be nervous and they still won’t know what to expect. It’s also still exercise, so they think it’s going to be difficult and that they won’t be able to do it.
The most important part of my job is to get clients to feel welcome and understand the nature of the class from a very early stage; that they can totally do what they want, they can do it at their own pace, and that they will be taught everything inside and out before they even need to take part.
Using different techniques to structure workouts so that anyone can do them is essential. I then train staff to understand these structures so that we can have one class that would be able to suit absolutely everyone, as opposed to people coming along to a class and finding it too difficult or too easy.
You branched out to offer classes on social media during lockdown and have had real success with it. How has this transition been, and have you noticed a different approach to mental health and fitness due to COVID-19?
I always said that I would never go online and that I wasn’t bothered about having thousands of followers on social media. As long as I was having a benefit in my own community and I was successful in my community, then I was happy.
Everything has changed now though. It’s rewarding to have your opinions and values shared to thousands of people as opposed to hundreds, and it’s helped me connect to people all over the world. I’m currently training with a mother and a son in Canada who both suffered separate brain injuries and that would never have happened if it wasn’t for lockdown. It’s been fantastic and I love being online now. I’m going to continue it once my gym reopens.
There have been some awful things that have come out of lockdown and the coronavirus, but I think with regards to community and general fitness it could be one of the best things to ever happen. People are missing the gym and people who have never exercised before are exercising now. Some of the people joining my online P.E. classes have never done anything like it before, or have stopped exercising maybe five or ten years ago. Now they are taking part in classes every week, running, and cycling.
People always put things off and say, “I’ll start tomorrow,” but now we are almost forced into taking action and I’ve never seen anything like it. I think it’s been absolutely amazing and I hope people will keep it up when everything goes back to normal.
What affects your mental health positively?
Much like everyone else, I have difficult days and my job can be very stressful. Of course, the first thing I usually go for is exercise but it definitely has to be sensible exercise. I know that if I’ve had a really stressful week, for example, if I then go and do an extremely tough session in the gym then it probably won’t do me any real benefit.
Another important one for me is yoga. I feel like such a cliche sometimes, but I am now one of those people who says that yoga changed their life. I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have that half hour of the day to totally switch off and just be by myself, either alone with my own thoughts or not thinking about anything much at all. I would encourage anyone to give it a try and stick with it because it’s not easy. A lot of people will come to one class and find it difficult to switch off, but it is tricky as you do need to concentrate on not concentrating.
I also really enjoy reading, both to learn and better yourself but also as a positive distraction from everything else going on.
The thing that exercise, yoga, and reading all have in common is that it’s time you can have all to yourself. Those three things are key for me.
Social media is a catch-22 for me because I need it for work but I’m very aware of how much time I spend on it. I think if you are on social media, you are living other people’s lives. All you are doing is being engrossed and interpreting other people’s thoughts and opinions rather than making your own.
One thing I feel people are losing is imagination. When you go into a shop and you are standing in a queue, what’s the first thing we do? Get your phone out of your pocket. We can’t bear for one second that we could be bored. Boredom can actually be a good thing! Whenever I’ve come up with good business ideas, it’s when I’ve been driving or in the shower. I’m just alone with my thoughts.
I would say definitely use social media as a positive tool, connect with people you admire. The Screen Time app is also amazing to help cut down. From my experience, you will become so much more creative the less time you spend on a phone.
What are you reading, listening to, and watching at the moment?
I’ve been listening to audio books recently, and have almost fully converted to audio books. I can get about an hour of listening in per day when I’m driving. I don’t know when else I would actually read other than last thing at night but I’m always shattered then.
I’ve been listening to ‘The Chimp Paradox’ by Steve Peters for the second time around – it totally changed my outlook on life. I’ve also been listening to ‘The Four-Hour Work Week’ by Tim Ferriss. That’s a little bit of a cliche book but it helps me massively.
I’ve also been watching ‘The Last Dance’ on Netflix, which is absolutely amazing. I could analyse and talk about that all day. When I was younger, I wanted to be a professional footballer and for years I would say, “I could have been a professional” but I actually had so many bad games because I didn’t have the confidence. I always wondered why coaches never picked up on this but then I realised when Michael Jordan said that athletes have to be the best and be mentally strong to play in front of a crowd. That stuck with me.
What is the best advice you’ve received in regards to your mental wellbeing?
This can be applied on all levels. The amount of things that we worry about and put off because we “don’t want to do them” – a lot of the time when we do do them it turns out fine. If they aren’t fine, it’s not going to be the end of the world. It could be as small as putting off a workout or a task at work.
If you do more and more of these things that you don’t want to do, eventually there won’t be anything that you won’t want to do. There won’t be as much worry and anxiety, and you will be far more productive.
For more information on MINDfit and Dan Hancock, visit: danhancockfitness.co.uk
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