It is customary that the media bombards us with weight loss advice after the holidays. Despite being somewhat overpowered by these messages, one of them caught my eye. This news item cited a study that engaged mind-body methods to aid weight loss. I was particularly drawn to it as my previous blog discussed how exercise can easily turn into a mindless activity that disciplines the body. I was interested in finding out how the mind might be re-engaged in an activity requiring similar discipline to exercise: Dieting.
In their 20-week intervention, researchers (Alert & al, 2013) from the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine in Boston engaged 20 overweight and obese participants in a program that included practical relaxation exercises and education on the relaxation response, nutrition and eating habits, but also exercise (aerobics, strength training, yoga) and a discussion of the benefits of mind-body physical activity.
Their study showed that the participants lost a significant amount of weight, reduced their BMI (body mass index) and body circumference measurements, but also significantly improved their self-efficacy and self-esteem, gained a positive outlook and their physical function improved in the four health-promoting behaviors: responsibility, physical activity, nutrition and stress management. In addition, they gained control over their eating and their hunger. It was not clear, however, how the actual mind-body intervention—for example, relaxation—contributed to weight loss. In addition, there was no control group that went through a similar intervention without the mind-body components. Regardless, the participants had gained more control over their bodies that they had managed to reduce in size. The mind-body connection, nevertheless, was not discussed in more detail in the news item.
Now tuned into the topic of mindfullness, I also came across an article by Thienot, Jackson, Dimmock, Grove, Bernier, and Fournier (2014) who discussed ‘mindfulness’ an as intervention strategy in sport. Mindfulness, which the authors defined as involving ‘non-judgmental and moment-to-moment awareness of the present experience’ (p. 72), has entered sport as an ‘attentional strategy.’ Although originally developed as a clinical technique for the treatment of depression and anxiety, these authors suggested that increased mindfulness can help athletes to sustain their focus on ‘goal-oriented cues’ and ignore disruptions. They theorized that with a higher level of mindfulness the athletes are able to accept ‘the presence of external stimuli, bodily sensations, emotional reactions, and cognitions’ which, in turn, helps them to focus their attention ‘toward thoughts and behaviours that benefit performance’ (p. 72). Mindfulness can also help sustain the ‘flow state’ (discussed in an earlier blog ‘Exercise and “Flow”: Are We Having Fun Yet?’), an optimal performance state that is easily disrupted by external conditions. Mindfulness should not be confused, the authors warned, with ‘step-by-step control of movement’ which disrupts automated skill execution and thus, is detrimental to performance. Following Gardner and Moore (2007), the authors described three components that characterize mindfulness:
(1) awareness of current thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations;
(2) acceptance: a non-judgmental attitude toward one’s current thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations;
(3) commitment towards goal-relevant actions: maintaining goal-relevant attention focus and behaviors.
Against this background, the mind-body connection with dieting success becomes more understandable. First, mindful engagement makes a dieter more aware of her thoughts and emotions about eating and dieting. Second, one needs to accept these thoughts and emotions to, third, become committed to the goal of changing one’s eating behavior and engaging in dieting. Mindfulness can, thus, keep one on track to achieve her accepted goal, whether it is weight loss or winning in sport.
The mind-body connection and mindfulness have also entered the fitness world that has been traditionally connected to bodily training. What does it mean in terms of our workouts? The sport researchers noted that one should not focus on carefully controlling each movement, but rather ‘automated skill execution’ leads to better performance. Many exercisers, indeed, enter the gym to give their minds a break after a long day at the office. Many exercisers listen to music to disengage their minds from what they are doing. Based on the research above, however, this type of ‘tuning out’ does not enhance goal-relevant attention. Although it might help to endure the monotony of some exercise forms, tuning out does not encourage one to be aware of her thoughts and emotions about exercise. Additionally, tuning out can disrupt one from making a commitment to her fitness goals because there is no awareness of self-acceptance. Therefore, if the mind-body connection helps to successfully achieve one’s goals, how can it be applied to training in the gym?
There is an entire category of so-called mindful exercise forms for gym goers. Ralf La Forge (1997) defined mindful exercise as ‘physical exercise executed with a profound inwardly directed focus’ (p. 55). He listed improved muscular strength, flexibility, balance, coordination, and improved mental development and self-efficacy as benefits of an inwardly directed exercise focus. Nearly all group exercise classes, La Forge observed, rely on external cues, not internal awareness. In addition, they use 'body-centered orientation' which could be likened to the ‘step-by-step control of movement’ discussed by Thienot, Jackson, Dimmock, Grove, Bernier, and Fournier (2014). Mindful fitness practices, similar to mindful sport interventions, focus on self-awareness and developing a non-judgmental attitude toward the self. In this sense, the emphasis is on helping ‘the person achieve an authentic mastery experience’ (p. 54) which can then lead to changed behavior like engaging in a healthy diet or an exercise program. Ultimately, mindful fitness, similar to other mind-body interventions, helps one to commit to his/her goals. At the same time, La Forge emphasized, the focus of mindful fitness needs to be on the present moment ‘in contrast to conventional exercise performance measures that emphasize fat burning, body sculpting, or heart rate elevation’ (p. 55). Instead of these common exercise goals, La Forge argued, mindful exercise lowers blood pressure, improves blood glues tolerance, pulmonary function, bone mineral density and lipid profile, and decreases stress, psychological distress, and self-efficacy.
Such positive benefits inspired La Forge to claim that ‘systematic body-oriented aerobics and resistance exercise will continue to fall short of producing optimal mental and physical health without a more disciplined introspective component’ (p. 57). While any exercise can include aspects of mindfulness, ‘mind-body exercise incorporates a specific meditative mindset to generate a temporary self-state or inwardly focused contemplative state’ (p. 55).
In the fitness industry, mindful exercise techniques are often offered in group exercise classes, most commonly in yoga and Pilates classes. Following La Forge’s analysis, mindful exercise appears quite antithetical to weight loss, but can improve many bodily functions (such as an improved lipid profile) that can be of benefit to someone wanting to lose weight. Nevertheless, the main psychological benefit is improved ‘self-mastery’ that helps an individual to control and discipline the body and remain committed to one’s goals such as weight loss or better fitness.
La Forge depicted mindful fitness as an ideal exercise form that embeds both physical and mental health benefits and in addition, builds self-efficacy and self-mastery with which to achieve one’s goals. While this sounds wonderful, the fitness industry offers diverse types of yoga and Pilates practices, some closer to ‘traditional’ body-oriented fitness classes than others. For example, the latest Pilates Style magazine cover advertises ‘How to get a sizzling summer body’ by ‘scorching calories’ and ‘sculpting sexy abs, arms and legs’ – a premise resembling the ‘conventional exercise performance measures’ identified by La Forge. Somewhat more subtly, the latest Yoga Journal cover pictures a thin and flexible practitioner to entice the readers back to ‘practice’ after their Christmas indulgence.
Mindfulness obviously also helps to achieve the more conventional fitness goals: weight loss, a more toned body, or improved health. Both the mind and the body are now disciplined to achieve these goals. Can this aid in greater awareness and a more non-judgmental attitude towards one’s self or one’s body? Or is the idea that one accepts one’s deficiencies such as an aptitude for over eating or being inactive so that one can then overcome these deficiencies in order to achieve the typical fitness goals? As a result, the main fitness goals and the need to discipline one’s body remain unchanged. In my previous blog, I discussed how such disciplinary actions can lead to docility and the creation of mindless and unquestioning exercisers. Will mindful exercise change us from mindless followers to thinking individuals? Or will it make us simply more aware of needing to discipline our bodies to lose weight, tone-up, or adopt healthier habits? Will it create thinking exercisers or direct our thoughts to even more effective bodily discipline and control?
Perhaps mindful fitness practices have additional dimensions that need to be considered by researchers? If so, I would like to hear more about these.
Alert, M. D., Rastegar, S., Foret, M., Slipp, L., Jacquest, J., Mackling, E., Baim, M., Fricchione, G., Benson, H., Denninger, J., Yeung, A. S., (2013). The effectiveness of a comprehensive mind body weight loss intervention for overweight and obese adults: A pilot study. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 21(4), 286-293.
La Forge, R. (1997). Mind-body fitness: Encouraging prospects for primary and secondary prevention. Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing, 11(3), 53-65.
Thienot, E., Jackson, B., Dimmock, J. Grove, J. R., Bernier, M., & Fournier, J. F. (2014). Development and preliminary validation of the mindfulness inventory for sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 15, 72-80.