By JONATHAN MILTON
As a clinical psychologist and a fitness competitor, Gina Midyett has a unique perspective on what exercise can do for the body — and the mind.
"I've always loved exercise since I was a little girl,'' said Midyett, 33, a Tampa therapist who owns Powerhouse Gym downtown with her husband, Matt.
So when she graduated from Pepperdine University in California with a doctorate in clinical psychology, she wanted to share her enthusiasm for fitness with patients suffering from depression and anxiety disorders.
"I was working as an intern with single mothers,'' she said. "I would incorporate some form of exercise. Since they didn't have a lot of money to go to a gym, I would teach them techniques and things they could do at home with their children. They would come in and just feel really great about themselves.''
Today, she firmly believes that fitness and nutrition are important keys to helping her clients overcome problems, such as depression, anxieties and addictions.
Before becoming a therapist, she was a personal trainer and a fitness competitor. She has also been a featured fitness model in publications like Iron Man, Muscle & Fitness and Natural Muscle.
Yet these experiences also have shown her another side of fitness.
After Midyett left competition and had two children, people still complimented her on her figure. Yet Midyett, who had dieted and worked out strenuously for her fitness career, didn't feel good about her softer body.
"I was used to having no body fat,'' she said. "I felt fat and gross and asked myself what was wrong with me.
"Now I look back and say, 'Wow. There was really something wrong with me.' "
Recognizing her own body image issues has helped her better understand clients who fear they'll never look good enough, or who focus on their physical goals to the exclusion of friends and family.
"One thing I tell people is that they need to have a balance. Otherwise, it's going to suck you dry to where you find yourself asking yourself where your life went."
Gina and Matt Midyett married in 2005 in Los Angeles, where they owned a Powerhouse Gym. A brother-in-law who lived in Tampa persuaded the couple to sell the L.A. gym in 2005 and open a Powerhouse in downtown Tampa. Children Matthew and Victoria came along soon after, and by 2009 Gina Midyett was back in competition, winning an overall title in the NPC Lakeland Classic show.
Although Midyett has worked as a personal trainer, she finds other trainers to work with her therapy clients. But first, she says, she has to get them to consider setting foot in a gym, an intimidating prospect for those with anxiety and body image problems.
"Getting them in the gym is the scariest thing for them. We do what I call gradual exposure," said Midyett. This starts with mental exercises and culminates with actually going.
Michael Shook, 43, who went to Midyett for help with depression, reports that the technique worked well for him.
"I was in a bad place before she got me to go into the gym. I've lost a lot of weight,'' he said.
Perhaps even better, he said, "I could go to the gym to get out in the public and face that demon."
Midyett notes that exercise addresses depression and anxiety in a variety of physical and emotional ways.
"If you think of an antidepressant and what it does, you see that it works with the serotonin, the endorphins and all of the chemicals in your brain. Well, exercise does the same thing," she said.
This doesn't mean that antidepressant medications aren't valuable, she said, but she has found that exercise allows some patients to be weaned off the drugs.
"I'm not against medication. I think that people need it, but I think that medication is a way to maybe get you to go and start implementing new coping strategies," she said.
Some of her clients also have had success using exercise as a distraction to stave off bad habits and impulses related to addictions.
People reach for an addictive substance "because you need to cope with an emotional pain . . . Instead of reaching for those bad habits and negative things, you go and work out. Now you feel better and all of these (natural brain) chemicals are working. Now the chances of you going to reach for that negative habit are much lower," she said.
Harry Heuman, 75, went to Midyett for help dealing with issues related to growing up as the son of Holocaust survivors.
"Dr. Midyett allows me to focus, refocus on me and those things that are important to me. Nothing is insurmountable," Heuman said.
He has seen both physical and emotional improvements.
"I went two (belt) notches down already. I care for myself and I now balance the care for myself with the care for others," he said.
He is setting new health goals.
"I have high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels. My goal, by doing this over time, is to hopefully become drug free. This is another good reason for me to get a good mind, a healthy body and good exercise. There's a balance there."
Jonathan Milton is a Tampa writer. He can be reached at [email protected]