By now, many of us, beset by bad weather and declining motivation, are struggling to maintain our New Year’s exercise resolutions. But a timely new study offers encouragement, suggesting that by paying more attention to the experience of exercise itself, even the most reluctant of exercisers might begin to find pleasure in movement.
Scientists, like the rest of us, have long wondered why some people stick with exercise and others do not. The possible explanations involve everything from genetics and personality to practicalities like work schedules and access to showers. But in multiple studies of exercise behavior, one of the most reliable indicators of whether people will continue to exercise is that they find exercise satisfying. They gain enjoyment from being active.
The problem with that finding is that it does not explain what makes exercise satisfying and so is not very helpful on a practical level. Simply advising unenthusiastic exercisers to start enjoying their workouts more seems unlikely to have the desired effect.
So for the new study, which was published last month in The Journal of Health Psychology, researchers at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and other institutions recently decided to more closely parse the psychological underpinnings of exercise satisfaction, hoping to tease out what makes exercise feel pleasurable to some and like drudgery to others.
They wondered in particular about the role of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a popular buzzword that most of us associate with meditation, yoga and spirituality, although its definition in popular culture can be loose and subjective. In experimental psychology, the word is more rigorously defined as controlled attentiveness, a deliberate “awareness of what is happening in the present moment,” as the authors of the new study wrote.
In recent years, scientists have found associations between mindfulness and physical health, especially in terms of weight control, with people who are mindful during meals tending to be less likely to gain weight.
But far less research had been devoted to studying mindfulness during exercise. A few studies have suggested that people whodeliberately immerse themselves in the feeling of moving and in the particulars of their surroundings during exercise often want to exercise again.
But the correlations in these studies between mindfulness and exercise compliance have been weaker than those between exercise satisfaction and compliance. Over all, past science suggests that people who like exercise are more likely to keep it up than those who simply are attentive during exercise.
But the Dutch researchers wondered whether these past studies might have been missing the point. Maybe, the researchers speculated, mindfulness didn’t directly affect people’s interest in exercise but instead altered their satisfaction during exercise. If mindfulness somehow left people feeling more satisfied during workouts, it could be one of the missing links required to keep people exercising.
To test this possibility, the researchers first turned to an online survey system in Holland and recruited almost 400 adults who had identified themselves as physically active.
The researchers then had the volunteers, about half of whom were men, complete a series of detailed questionnaires about their daily exercise habits, their personalities, their typical feelings during any given exercise session, their mindfulness in general, and their mindfulness during exercise. The questionnaires, scientifically validated but somewhat blunt instruments, asked questions such as “When I am doing physical activity, I am fully absorbed in it,” with the respondents replying using a scale from one (totally agree) to five (totally disagree).
In essence, the scientists were trying to determine how much their volunteers exercised, how satisfied they were with that exercise, how mindful they were during exercise, and how those variables affected each other.
It turned out, unsurprisingly, that the people who reported being most satisfied with exercise were also the people who exercised the most, and vice versa.
But mindfulness also played a pronounced role in making exercise feel satisfying, the data showed. People who reported being mindful during exercise also generally reported satisfaction with exercise.
There was little correlation, however, between the amount of mindfulness people reported and their exercise habits, leading the scientists to conclude that mindfulness affected exercise mostly indirectly, by altering satisfaction.
“The message is that mindfulness may amplify satisfaction, because one is satisfied when positive experiences with physical activity become prominent,” says Kalliopi-Eleni Tsafou, a Marie Curie Research Fellow at Utrecht University who led the study. “For those experiences to be noticed,” she continued, “one must become aware of them. We would argue that this can be achieved by being mindful.”
This study has limitations because it is based on a single instance of self-reported information from a self-selected group of people concerning emotions and exercise routines. People tend to be unreliable about both those things.
But even with those limitations, the data do suggest that “being present” during exercise and “observing all aspects that comprise” the experience might render the workout more satisfying, Ms. Tsafou said.
Of course, being aware and in the moment during exercise also means experiencing, fully, your twinging muscles, declining pace, hunger, and unbecoming spite when a grandmother passes you on the trail. But even these aspects of exercise should be more tolerable with mindfulness, Ms. Tsafou said. As she and her colleagues wrote in the study, mindfulness “facilitates the acceptance of things as they occur,” enabling us to “accept negative experiences and view them as less threatening.”
Thank you to Gretchen Reynolds for that inspiring article.