The Addicting Power of Mindful Exercise
March 23, 2015
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.)
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:
- 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.
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.
- 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.
Look 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 goal, 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.