9 Ways ‘Trauma-Informed Exercise’ Is Different, Says an Abuse Survivor-Turned-Trainer

Updated: Aug. 01, 2023

A lot of gym workouts are accompanied by pumping music, loud noises, tight spaces, shouting, and sometimes-harsh messaging about bodies. One trainer has improved this experience for some gym-goers who find that environment too much.

The World Health Organization has stated that around 30% of women between the ages of 15 and 49 have experienced relationship abuse.

As a young teen, Maria Chalifoux, now 24, had experienced abuse in several different ways. To process her feelings, first she turned to self-harm. That helped to forge a connection between her body and her mind that the abuse she experienced had grown to numb. However, Chalifoux says she was also aware that the physical and the emotional effects of doing this could have a lasting impact on her.

Chalifoux recognized that she needed another way to cope and connect with her body in a healthier way. The then-high schooler started to develop her own workouts at home and soon started leading her girlfriends in “workout classes.”

“It was this incredibly empowering experience, getting stronger together—not just physically but mentally as well,” Chalifoux tells The Healthy @Reader’s Digest. Teaching fitness “was a way I could stay present in my body and have fun while feeling safe,” she says, “if just for that moment.”

Through fitness, Chalifoux found she was able to work through her trauma. She decided to share the power of strength training to help others heal. In 2018 she earned her personal training certification, and in 2020 became a certified wellness counselor through Cornell University. She now runs a business doing what’s known as “trauma-informed personal training.”

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How is trauma-informed fitness different from a regular workout?

At times, some gym workouts are accompanied by pumping music, loud noises, flashing lights, confined spaces, touching, shouting, and sometimes-harsh messaging about bodies. This can be very unsettling for some individuals with a history of trauma, to the point that it may keep them from exercising. So, says Chalifoux, trauma-informed workouts strive to create a workout environment and program that feels safe, comfortable, and that moves at the individual’s pace.

It starts with finding the right type of therapist. Trauma-informed fitness instructors or therapists are different from traditional exercise professionals, as they have special training in both fitness and trauma. Any type of exercise can be used for trauma-informed fitness—however Chalifoux says dance, yoga, hiking and strength training tend to be the most common formats.

Erica Hornthal, LPC, a licensed clinical professional counselor, board-certified movement therapist, founder of Chicago Dance Therapy and author of the August 2022 book release, Body Aware, says,“Trauma-informed exercise can look many different ways, but it all comes from a foundation that people deserve a compassionate person-centered approach, especially when underlying stress from trauma can be exacerbated when exerting, manipulating, or touching the body.”

Sessions or classes are adjusted to individual needs but often include:

  • Carefully chosen music. (“I let my clients bring in their own playlists and we workout to whatever they like,” says Chalifoux.)
  • An open but private space.
  • Appropriate, soothing lighting.
  • Always asking for consent before touching.
  • Explanation of movements and how the sensation may feel in the body.
  • No mirrors or limited use.
  • No weigh-ins.
  • Positive or reaffirming body talk.
  • A flexible workout plan with the understanding the client can end it or take a break at any point.

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How exercise can help people heal from trauma

Exercise can be one of the most effective and powerful ways to deal with the physical, mental, and emotional effects of trauma…but for anyone, working out should be an activity that allows an individual to feel comfortable. From trauma-informed exercise, Hornthal says, clients get physical benefits, like strength and an endorphin rush—but it’s about more than the immediate effect. Through these workouts, clients learn awareness of how their body holds their trauma and how to respect their body’s limits, honor their own needs, and make boundaries.

Exercise also allows the person to experience stress in a safe way, helping to rewire the brain and create new neural connections. “Trauma changes the brain, the way it responds to stressors, even if they are unrelated to the initial trauma,” says Hornthal. “Any movement or sensation can trigger a memory of the trauma, which can catch someone off-guard, especially when [they’re] exercising.”

In a regular workout, being triggered can lead to what these professionals call a “breakdown,” which can manifest as freezing up, staring into space, outbursts of crying or anger, startling, or fleeing. This could be embarrassing and even re-traumatizing…but in this setting, breakdowns are seen as opportunities, says Chalifoux. “I tell my clients, ‘Okay, wait, here’s what I’m seeing happening in your body. You are safe here. Do you want to talk about what you are feeling?’,” Chalifoux says. “I validate their feelings, ask questions, listen, and give them the language and space to talk about it.”

These lessons in the gym can then translate to real life. “If people can learn how to feel safe here, in the studio, they can create that safety for themselves in their daily lives outside the gym,” says Chalifoux.

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What counts as trauma?

Perhaps you read through this and thought, “What I experienced wasn’t that bad. This probably isn’t for me.” A hallmark of victims of trauma is that they often feel different, inferior or less deserving than “real” victims. You may hear “trauma” and automatically think of something violent. However, says Chalifoux, there are many different types of trauma that can affect your relationship with your body:

  • Car or other accidents
  • Infertility, miscarriages or traumatic births
  • Cancer or chronic illness
  • Sexual assault
  • War or violent conflict
  • Child abuse
  • Addiction
  • Eating disorders
  • Emotional or physical domestic violence
  • Natural disasters

“It’s anything that makes you lose trust in your body and in your ability to take care of yourself,” she says. “Ultimately, trauma-informed fitness helps you grieve who you were before the trauma, process your feelings in a healthy way, and create a new, positive relationship with your body.”

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