Inner Fitness: How Altruism Keeps Us Healthy


A healthy diet, exercise, and screening for disease will always remain the cornerstones for lifelong health. Yet many experts — including, apparently, the well-respected late poet Ralph Waldo Emerson — feel that inner fitness must also make the list. Read on to discover the secrets of tapping into this enriching wellspring of potential positive energy and how you might share it with your personal training clients.


Compassion“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Inner fitness = Outward Health

Inner fitness refers to focusing energy on emotional health rather than being enslaved to diet variables, weight, and meeting exercise demands. Practicing mindfulness reveals an inner sense of completeness–a piece often lacking in our quest to attenuate pain and veer away from dangerous health practices.

Practices including T’ai Chi, meditation, and expressing gratitude figure prominently in such a lifestyle. When engaged in regularly, this “healthy from the inside out” can bring about many positive physical changes.

Research shows that mindfulness can lower blood pressure, improve sleep, lead to better eating habits, and reduce chronic pain.

According to author Tina Lifford, who writes on the topic of emotional health, “Inner fitness means developing the mental, emotional, and spiritual skills and practices that foster resilience. I’d like to see the idea of inner fitness become as ubiquitous, well understood, and actionable as physical fitness.”

The Key to Happiness: Doing Good For Others and Yourself

Happiness elicits a multitude of definitions, depending upon the individual. Psychologists make reference to two very distinct forms. Hedonic happiness comes about through experiences of pleasure and enjoyment, while eudaimonic happiness refers to the euphoric state that evolves as a result of meaningful, purpose-driven experiences. Both facets contribute to overall health and well-being, in much the same way as altruism.

Studies show that volunteering time or donating financially to a worthy cause unleashes the brain’s endorphins, thereby triggering its innate “reward system”. Circulating levels of the stress hormone cortisol can be measurably reduced during times of active altruism. “One of the best anti-anxiety medications available is generosity,” said Adam Grant, an Organizational Psychologist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Bryant P.H. Hui, author of a study conducted at the University of Hong Kong, researches prosocial behaviors such as cooperation, trust, and lending a helping hand. His article, published by the American Psychological Association, reveals that “Prosocial behavior – altruism, cooperation, trust, and compassion – are all necessary ingredients of a harmonious and well-functioning society….It is part of the shared culture of humankind, and our analysis shows that it also contributes to mental and physical health.”

An interesting artifact of Dr. Hui’s experiments illustrated how a random act of kindness can affect our overall well-being more significantly than a scheduled volunteering stint. Perhaps the sheer spontaneity of such occurrences fosters social networking, which in and of itself seems to elevate one’s happiness levels.

You Give and You Receive

Personal trainers choose this profession because they possess an inherent desire to help others achieve their goals and carve out their most successful, healthy lives. Aside from a paycheck, what do we receive in return? This prosocial desire for altruism shows a high correlation to one’s innate happiness. Research experiments using both longitudinal and cross-sectional data indicate that the belief that one’s job makes a difference surpasses even the aforementioned happiness quotient of altruistic traits.

Practicing Self-Compassion

Living an altruistic existence doesn’t mean that you neglect your own needs, however.

Jack Groppel, an executive coach and Professor of Exercise and Sport Science at Judson University in Elgin, IL, suggests choosing to focus once in a while on yourself and your needs. Designate whatever time of day you feel the most energetic/creative/ productive.

Give yourself permission to dive into your own priority list of emotional needs during this time (rather than using that time to get “stuff done”). This does not mean you are selfish; rather, you are acknowledging that self-care ranks just as highly as working in service to others.

What would it take to treat ourselves with the same degree of compassion and support as we offer clients who struggle to meet their goals? Close to 75% of individuals who find it easy to care for others seem to discount the need to treat themselves with the same level of kindness and patience, according to research undertaken by Kristin Neff, an Associate Professor at the University of Texas – Austin. Intuition, sensitivity, and experience inspire us to treat clients, and even strangers, with respect.

What happens to that attitude when we look in the mirror?

Just as we inquire of a potential new client, “How can I help you on your fitness/health journey?”, we might begin our search for self-discovery with the question “What do I need at this moment to feel better/healthier/more in control?” Inciting self-compassion instead of flogging thwarts self-sabotage, promoting more peace and contentment.

Natural Selection

In the world of human psychology, many adhere to the belief that our psyche may have evolved, at least partially, by natural selection. Considering the brain as one of many organs in the body, might we postulate that altruism could get hard-wired into the brain’s neurons via a pathway akin to natural selection?

The field of social neuroscience research calls our attention to how one’s preponderance towards altruism aligns directly with greater activity within certain specific regions of the brain: the limbic area and the cortical region of the medial prefrontal cortex.

Much more research is needed in order to form a solid platform on which many of these inner fitness ideas rest, especially those of pure conjecture at this point in time. However, our profession remains on solid footing in terms of how helping others can enhance our lives as well. This author often comes away from personal training sessions feeling enriched because of something a client said, witnessing a personal-best lift, or learning of some significant obstacle he overcame; I’m sure you have experienced this same “natural high” of making a difference in the lives of your clients. The gift of giving always returns to the giver!


Helping others also helps yourself: these new studies explain why


Cathleen Kronemer is an NFPT CEC writer and a member of the NFPT Certification Council Board. Cathleen is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, ACE-Certified Health Coach, former competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for over three decades. Feel free to contact her at She welcomes your feedback and your comments!
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