The Addicting Power of Mindful Exercise

Last month, I read an article in The New York Times on some surprising new research about “mindfulness” and exercise. The story went a bit viral with health bloggers who rushed to post these findings, and it swept me along accordingly. (Translate the word “mindfulness” as used in this study not as a kind of spirituality but simply as the act of paying attention to what you’re doing.)

Utrecht University The Netherlands small

Utrecht University, The Netherlands

The article reported on the results of a research study on whether or not “mindfulness” plays a role helping people stick with exercise. I was so intrigued by this question that I looked up and read the original study, authored by a group of Dutch scientists at Utrecht University, The Netherlands. It turned out that the team’s report, unlike typical research papers, grabbed me like a chapter out of “Freakonomics” with its novel insights. Here in brief are the study’s three main conclusions:

  1. Being mindful during exercise makes it a more positive experience, even if you basically don’t like exercise, so you’re more likely keep doing it.
  2. Dutch researchers

    The Dutch researchers

    Switching to mindful exercise has less of an impact on people who already exercise regularly than on exercise beginners, who are significantly more likely to stick with an exercise routine if it engages them mentally.

  3. But here’s the twist! Once exercise becomes a habit, it’s by nature less mindful since habits are acts you do without having to think about them. Even at this stage, the researchers found, continued mindfulness has an impact. The subjects of the study who managed to stay mindful after they’d acquired the exercise habit were even more likely not to fall off the wagon than those who’d begun to zone out during their workouts.

These findings gave me an “aha” moment. Students have told me for years that the Bar Method is the only workout they’ve ever stuck with, and I’ve always suspected that the reason is that the workout demands a high degree of mindfulness. The Dutch study finally connected the dots for me between the many testimonials I get about how addicting The Bar Method is and the workout’s focus on keeping students mentally engaged.

Mindfulness Denise photoLook at this idea – that there is a connection between mindfulness and stick-to-itiveness – as if you were taking a Bar Method class, and you’ll see how the mental component of the workout motivates you to want to repeat the experience. First, you know that your teacher and fellow students do not allow for slacking off (unless you’re modifying due to a medical condition), so you must collect your wits about you in order not to let up when your muscles start to burn. On top of that, the class demands that you stay in the exercise in good posture. Lose focus and drop your head, slump, or ease up on a move a few times, and your teacher will gently remind you by name to get back in form, then later compliment you on maintaining that form. You also hear the reminders and compliments that your teacher gives to your fellow students, and these too help you to keep your attention on your performance. These frequent prompts make the class a learning experience that you’re motivated to do again.

Once you become a regular student, the class continues to engross you because you’ve now seen and felt changes, and you’re excited to be progressing towards your personal goals. The methodical nature of the class has allowed you to improve step by step, and you increasingly enjoy the support of your teachers and your classmates along the way. A Denise final reverence smallgoal, for example, might be to increase your stamina during thigh-work or to heal after an injury. Possibly you want better posture, and you feel the workout both strengthening your back and mentally training you to carry yourself more upright. If your goal is to be more flexible, you take satisfaction in gradually weaning yourself off of straps and stall-bars. Finally, there are all the changes in your body and self-confidence that the Bar Method delivers like a gift with every class. These changes snowball into a feedback loop that spurs you to focus more and more on the details of the form, which you’ve learned are key for continuing body change. Ultimately, doing a mindful workout gives you a whole new reason for exercising: It becomes an experience you simply enjoy for its own sake.

Let me know your thoughts about mindful exercise.

Burr and Pi Chrissy Fields 1 2015 edit small


3 replies
  1. Lindsey
    Lindsey says:

    Dear Burr, Thank you for writing such an innovative post on some of the psychological mechanisms involved in barre. As an avid barre enthusiast and clinical psychologist, I have been incredibly interested in the mind-body connection in barre fitness, specifically. I couldn’t agree more with what you wrote and that mindfulness may be the optimal result of the keen focus that is required during the workout. There literally isn’t room in one’s brain to carry the “to-dos” or worries of the day and, at the same time, perfect the arabesque form. Because each move requires so much attention and focus, I believe that focus is the catalyst for the type of mindfulness that is occurring during class. I have actually thought about designing a study that involved barre. I hypothesized that a mindfulness intervention would help women feel more motivated to engage in activities like barre or other forms of exercise for their wellbeing. Because I believe so strongly that barre, and Bar Method in particular, would solve both issues in one- mindfulness + exercise- I imagined a study where participants would either attend a Bar Method studio or attend class online, and report, utilizing survey instruments, on their wellbeing. Obviously, there would be a standardized procedure, similar to the various challenges that your studios do throughout the year, but I think it would yield incredible results. In an earlier post, you made a call for more research on the benefits of barre, and I think you are right! It’s overlooked and understudied. I really appreciate your scientific approach to barre and how much attention to detail and care you display in the design of your classes. Smart, efficient, and a strong rationale for each move- that’s music to my psychologist ear! I’ll be near two Bar Method studios in a couple of weeks and I’m excited to see Angie and Jen in Summit and to experience Westfield for the first time. For now, I’ll just see them, and everyone else, online :).

  2. Michael
    Michael says:

    Mindfulness – the art and science of connecting one’s mind and body together in service of a single action. In this case being mindful of the exercise you are in at the moment will bring far more benefits than if one was watching Dr. Phil while being on a treadmill. This is important stuff, because anyone who excels in this world will tell you that focusing on what they are doing brings better results.

  3. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    One of my favorite things about Bar is that I cannot think about outside activities while I am engaged in the class. The most external thought I can muster up is how I should have chosen a better fitting tank that day. 🙂 After two years, that has not changed. It’s fascinating. I tried yoga and pilates, but my mind would wander to grocery lists and the weather. In terms of stick-to-itiveness, you also cannot discount that you watch your body change by the week and that’s incredible and powerful. That’s hard to give up. Thank you, Burr.


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