Mindfulness & Physical Activity

Exercise reduces the risk of heart attack by 30% [1].

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the UK [2] and the risk of suffering from it is increased by a sedentary lifestyle. Low levels of cardiovascular fitness are associated with increased risk of many health conditions, and physical inactivity contributes to almost one in ten premature deaths from coronary heart disease and one in six deaths from any cause [3].

The health benefits of a physically active lifestyle are well documented and there is a large amount of evidence to suggest that regular activity is related to a reduced incidence of many chronic conditions. People who are physically active are at lower risk of cardiovascular disease. To produce the maximum benefit, exercise needs to be regular and aerobic.

However, for most of the people it is not only hard to start doing physical exercise but also to keep going when they have taken the first step. Traditional strategies in the form of campaigns, programmes, and even medical treatment have been largely implemented. They have promise for increasing physical activity but short-term effects are modest and maintenance of change is limited. Innovations on traditional strategies is therefore needed to develop more effective programmes. Mindfulness-based interventions are becoming an effective strategy to produce long-lasting results.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is an adaptation of Buddhist meditation. Supported by over 40 years of research across a number of sectors and applications; Mindfulness is the practice of purposely focusing your attention on the present moment and accepting it without judgement [4].

The aim is to become more aware of thoughts and feelings, in a non-judgemental way, so that instead of being overwhelmed by them, we can manage them better. Regular mindfulness practice can help us to act with clarity, wisdom and perspective, rather than simply reacting in the heat of the moment or out of habit.  We are more able to focus on solutions rather than problems and to manage conflict and stress more effectively.

Mindfulness & Physical Activity

Mindfulness can have a profound effect on physical and mental health [5]. Learning how to pay more attention to the present moment, to your own thoughts and feelings and to the world around you, can have a big impact on your disposition to physical activity. As such, for people having difficulty starting and/or maintaining an exercise programme, mindfulness practice may help them to achieve their goals.

Integrating mindfulness to interventions with exercise is one way to initiate exercise adherence. When integrating mindfulness into exercise programmes, we are able to enjoy and feel the benefits of exercising by doing things without having our attention drawn away from what is happening right now. Typical concerns about what we have to do next, the report we need to finish, and so on are no longer our prime focus making us aware of what we are doing at the present moment and how enjoyable it is.

Engaging in mindfulness can elicit change over time. When practicing mindful-based exercise programmes, the benefits can also be seen with improved breathing rate and depth, heart rate, and muscular activity. Promoting mindfulness-based training for physical activity then has positive effects both psychologically and physiologically [6].


What Does Research Have to Say?

The implications for mindfulness as an acceptable intervention for long-lasting lifestyle changes appear to be positive. In recent years research has increased its attention on mindfulness can help people to become more active. For example, in 2010 a group of investigators examined relations between mindfulness and health behaviours in 553 undergraduate students. They found that mindfulness was related to decreased stress, which in turn contributes to increased positive health behaviours such as exercising [7]. Similarly, another study found that people who act mindfully are much more likely to carry out their intentions when it comes to exercise [8]. This means that they do not only think about being active, they prepare a plan and implement it.

But this is not all, mindfulness has also shown positive results on sport performance. This is not only relevant for professional athletes but also for people struggling with fatigue. Many people do not exercise because they are too tired, for example, after a long day of work. Others begin a programme but after a short time they feel too exhausted to continue or to make the most of their physical activity. A study with swimmers and golfers found that being aware of their body sensations during exercise helped them to achieve their maximum level of performance during competition and to enjoy their activity more [9]. In another study a group of archers and golfers participated in a 4-week Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement (MSPE) programme. After the training, participants reported they felt more motivated and more confident about their sport performance [10].


How to Integrate Mindfulness into Physical Activity

The WHO guidelines [11] and the UK Guidelines [12]  for physical activity emphasises the importance of exercise for people of all ages. They recommend a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per week. You are working at a moderate intensity if your heart rate is increased and you break into a sweat. This is the same as being able to talk but unable to sing the words to a song during exercise. In how many days per week do you achieve this level? You should be exercising 30 minutes per day at least 5 days a week.

Mindfulness practice can help you to start your physical activity or to keep going if you already started. When considering mindfulness and physical activity, it is important to differentiate between physical activities which are geared toward mindfulness and have mindful components such as yoga and mindful movements, from other mindfulness interventions that are geared toward greater awareness which may then lead to physical activity.

Therefore, you can start your physical activity by formally practicing mindfulness exercises. Yoga, mindful movements, and sitting-meditation are the most common methods. The meditator sits in a relaxed but alert posture, either on the floor cross-legged or in a chair, and places attention on the in and out flow of the breath, focusing on either the breath at the nostrils or on the rise and fall of the abdomen. When attention wanders, the meditator simply notes the distraction and returns to the breath [13]. This is accompanied with a number of body-centred mindful exercises.

You can also include informal mindfulness practice in your current physical activity if you already started exercising. Using simple techniques that increase you awareness to the present moment can have a huge impact on your exercise performance and maintenance. As such, when you are feeling too stressed, busy, or unfocused to exercise, remember to Stop, Pause, and Exercise. STOP what you are now doing; PAUSE for a while and focus on your breath, breathe in slowly, and then exhale completely 5 times but don’t forget to be aware of each breath in and each breath out; now you are ready to EXERCISE. You can also bring some yoga, mindful movement, and meditation to your routine.


1 NHS (2014). The top 5 causes of premature death. Department of Health. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/1jFKU0L

2 WHO. (2015). United Kingdom: WHO statistical profile. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/gho/countries/gbr.pdf?ua=1

3 Townsend, N., Wickramasinghe, K., Williams, J., Bhatnagar, P., & Rayner, M. (2015). Physical Activity Statistics 2015. London: British Heart Foundation.

4 Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003).Mindfulness-based Interventions in context: Past, present, and future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10(2), 144-156.

5 Brown, K. W., Ryan, R. M., & Creswell, J. D. (2007). Mindfulness: Theoretical Foundations and Evidence for its Salutary Effects. Psychological Inquiry, 18(4), 211–237.

6 Kennedy, A. B., & Resnick, P. B. (2015). Mindfulness and Physical Activity. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 9(3), 221–223.

7 Roberts, K. C., & Danoff-Burg, S. (2010). Mindfulness and health behaviors: Is paying attention good for you? Journal of American College Health, 59(3), 165–173.

8 Chatzisarantis, N. L. D., & Hagger, M. S. (2007). Mindfulness and the intention-behavior relationship within the theory of planned behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33(5), 663–676.

9 Bernier, M., Thienot, E., Codron, R., & Fournier, J. F. (2009). Mindfulness and Acceptance Approaches in Sport Performance. Journal of Clinical Sports Psychology, 4(September 2015), 320–333.

10 Kaufman, K. a, Glass, C. R., & Arnkoff, D. B. (2009). Evaluation of Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement (MSPE): A New Approach to Promote Flow in Athletes. Journal of Clinical Sports Psychology, 4(1990), 334–356.

11 WHO. (2010). Global Recommendations on physical activity for health. Geneva: World Health Organization.

12 Department of Health. (2011). UK physical activity guidelines. Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/uk-physical-activity-guidelines

13 Weiss, A. (2004). Beginning Mindfulness: Learning the Way of Awareness. New World Library.

Mindfulness and Physical Activity

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