It is the beginning of a new year. Among the resolutions for these 12 months ahead of you is the ever-returning commitment of exercising more. And you know that this is the year that you will become regular exerciser. You start going to the gym and everything looks really good on the firsts weeks. However, as the months passed by you start noticing that there are less people on the gym (now you don not have to queue for the treadmill!) and a couple of months later you don’t even see yourself in the gym…
Do you feel identified with this story? Do not worry, according to researchers about half of the people are likely to drop-out of their exercise program within 6 months or fail to maintain physical activity in the intended level.
Why is it that most of the people do not adhere to exercise programs in spite of the known benefits of achieving and sustaining a recommended level of physical activity? A research carried out by Christi Ulmar, Barbara Stetson and Paul Salmon from the University of Louisville, might shed some light of the reasons behind these high rates of dropouts.
The authors discussed this issue through a recent therapeutically technique developed in clinical and health psychology called Mindfulness, which has been defined by Kabat-Zinn as a “non-judgmental, present oriented focus attention”. The conceptual basis behind this technique is that most of the time (if not always) we are thinking in past events (which we can’t change) or worrying about future events (which we can’t really know). In this manner, we should be living mindfully and accepting this present moment, by having the willingness to remain in contact with and to actively experience the private experiences (e.g., thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, etc.). And, that most of the psychological distress comes from the “experiential avoidance”, that is the tendency we have to try to change or avoid difficult thoughts and feelings. We are constantly fighting our thoughts and sensations, and paradoxically they become bigger and stronger when we do this.
The Mindfulness based interventions have been found to reduce coronary heart disease risk, lower body mass index, increase physical activity, and even has been successfully employed to reduce anxiety and depression. Applied to exercise, this model predicts that the sensations associated with exercise initiation and maintenance (some of which are inevitably unpleasant or even painful) would elicit reactions that might lead do avoidant or suppressive behaviors, in this case, dropping out from exercise. Therefore, being non-judgmental and aware of the present moment will foster an effective responsive appraisal of the exercise feelings and sensations that will counteract habitual cognitive and physiological reactions (e.g. not wanting to exercise today).
In the study, the authors examined the disposition to be mindful, the experiential avoidance, the thought suppression, the exercise maintenance, the achievement of activity guidelines and the success of meeting the exercise goals, on 226 participants who were enrolled on a gym.
The results of this cross-sectional study showed that those who had higher levels of mindfulness and acceptance, and lower suppression were related to fewer missed exercise sessions, more regular exercise, and a greater perceived success in meeting their exercise goals.
One of the major limitations of the study is the use of retrospective recall data, which might not be really accurate. And a second limitation of the study is that due to the design is not possible to conclude casual inferences. Thereby it cannot be determined if the individuals that are drawn to exercise are more mindful and accepting or if exercise promotes mindfulness and acceptance. It could be one of it, or even both of them. Nevertheless being more mindful, accepting and having a lower suppression is related to exercise maintenance.
So, how can I be more mindful and use this technique in order to wear those shorts and tennis shoes again? Somehow, one must learn a way to balance what may be stressful and even unpleasant experiences of the daily life, and the long-term benefits of becoming and staying active. Through a combination of present-moment awareness and an accepting, non-judgmental attitude, ‘being mindful’ can provide a potentially effective mean of coping with the exercise-related challenges.
A second way of “becoming” more mindful comes from the early researches of this technique helping patients cope with chronic pain. Mindfulness helped these patients to carefully discriminate the moment-by-moment experiential shifts (moments of pain vs. moments of no pain), and specially separating the pain related thoughts from the actual sensations. It has been shown that most of the time is not the “feeling” of pain what really bothers people (sometimes is a manageable sensation), but what worsens it, is the feelings and thoughts that are generated around the initial sensation. When you are on the gym and start “thinking” about your pain, you could realize that a little percentage of the distress is the real sensation, and most of it is due to previous experiences (“the last time I had these pain, I was dead for the next three days”) or possible future experiences (“I know that tomorrow I won’t be able to move this arm”). Next time, try to stay in the present moment, try to avoid placing more “pain” to the sensation you are experiencing right now.
Finally, try to imagine for a moment those who are regularly exercisers. They seem to be enjoying it and they look like they are in another planet when they are training. That is true and it is pretty close to what mindfulness is. Athletes report a mindful-like state, where they focused predominantly on the present-moment physical and physiological sensation, while being aware (but not being over-invested) in the inevitable flow of thoughts and memories that accompany such experiences. They are totally immersed in the present-moment feelings and sensations, even pain, for example. As it was stated previously, they are on a state where pain is just a feeling, not a big monster filled with precedents and consequences around it.
Next time you are on the gym you can try to “enjoy” the pain, soreness, stiffness and all the unpleasant bodily sensations that might be related to physical exercise. If you don’t enjoy it (as most of us don not) try to be aware of it, just the sensation, and not all the things that surround it. Be mindful of the present moment, of every movement and feeling, because you are right now on the gym, it does not matter if yesterday was too exhausting or tomorrow you will be very tired. Because anyway what really matters is being here and now, and that is being mindful.