CEDAR RAPIDS — Pushing back from the Thanksgiving table and taking a brisk walk around the neighborhood may be a good start to the annual “maintain don’t gain” goal promoted by health advisers and wellness plans.
To stick to the plan, an Iowa State University professor suggests meditation.
No, Jacob Meyer, who teaches kinesiology at ISU, doesn’t think sitting cross-legged on the floor with your eyes closed will help you be more active as we head into winter.
Instead, Meyer’s research suggests that practicing mindfulness mediation, which involves paying close attention to your thoughts, emotions and sensations in the present moment, can help people stick with an exercise regimen even as daylight shortens and temperatures drop.
While doing postdoctoral work at the University of Wisconsin, Meyer conducted research to learn what would inspire Midwesterners to remain active through winter. Research has shown that on average, physical activity drops by about 11 minutes per day in winter. That’s worrisome from a health standpoint because 11 minutes represents a significant portion of the average person’s daily activity time.
To Meyer’s surprise, the research conducted in 2016 showed that people in his experiment who practiced mindfulness remained as active as those who were in structured exercise regimens. People in both of those groups remained more active than members of the control group who simply continued their normal lives. Their activity time dropped nearly twice as much as those who practiced meditation or structured activity.
The results were surprising, Meyer said, because from a traditional kinesiology standpoint getting people to be more active involves “getting people into a structured exercise training program, maybe in a gym, where they are doing structured exercise a couple of times a week.”
“In this study, it looked like mindfulness had a similar effect on people’s general physical activity as our traditional exercise program did,” he said. “I expected the exercise would improve activity, but not so much the mindfulness. I thought it could have some effect, but not a large amount.”
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More research is needed, but Meyer thinks the results suggest “we could add mindfulness training to the tool kit of possible ways of thinking about physical activity.”
The research involved 49 people ranging in age from 30 to 69 randomly divided into three groups. The control group simply continued their normal lives. The exercise group did unsupervised walking or jogging as well as regular instruction and group workouts.
The mindfulness group received meditation instruction that focused on attending to the present moment. They practiced body scans and mindful walking, in addition to the usual quiet, seated meditations. Most of their meditations were completed at home.
Monitors the participants wore in November showed members of the control group were much less active in November than they had been in previous months. People in the exercise and meditation groups also slowed down by about six minutes a day.
Meyer remains curious about the relationship between mindfulness and physical activity and whether people “can be mindful and aware in a way that might influence whether they choose to be physically active or maybe choose to do particular events throughout the day in an active manner.”
It could be as simple as choosing to walk across the office to talk to a co-worker rather than send them an email.
“It’s thinking of ‘How am I doing right now?’ and deciding ‘OK, maybe a little walk would be good for me,’” Meyer said.
Mindfulness about physical activity could affect decisions throughout the day such as where to park and how far to walk to and from an office, Meyer said.
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“Every time you get up from your desk you make a choice about how it is you’re going to do whatever you do next,” he said.
While there’s nothing about mindfulness training itself that speaks to physical activity, Meyer sees as a “different, independent method of trying to change people’s health practices.”
“It turns out that may influence physical activity, too,” he said. That could be helpful in dealing with the seasonal decrease in activity in winter.
“When we see winter’s coming … the question is ‘How do I deal with how winter will change by behavior?’” Meyer said.
“This might be one way to help encourage people” who might find going to a gym to be a barrier to exercise.
Because the results weren’t what Meyer expected, he wants to do more research “to see if it’s a real effect,” he said. He’s hoping to incorporate it into a larger study, to look at whether “mindfulness training in a structured, systematic way within a physical activity promotion program can be used to get people to make important and long-lasting activity changes.”
“It’s worth considering because the traditional idea that I have to go exercise in a gym setting might be a barrier for a lot of people,” Meyer said. “This might be another avenue for people who wouldn’t have otherwise ended up being more active.”
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