Mindfulness meditation too boring? Try mindful movement to shed stress, anxiety

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. —  The practice of mindfulness is often associated with meditation, a combination that studies have shown can offer positive mental health benefits. But what happens when one combines mindfulness with more physical activities? A study by researchers at Pennsylvania State University shows that practicing mindful movement can lower anxiety and stress.

Mindful movement refers to focusing on the breath and what one’s senses detect from their immediate surroundings when on their feet and moving around. For example, instead of listening to music or thinking about your plans while out for a jog or brisk walk, a person instead would put all of his or her attention on the sights, sounds, and smells while on the move. The research team says it can be a healthy alternative to exercise for those who want to feel better mentally, but can’t work out regularly.

“It can be difficult to ask people to spend a lot of time doing moderate or vigorous activity by going to the gym or out for a run, especially if they feel stressed,” says study leader Chih-Hsiang “Jason” Yang, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Southern California who is earning his doctorate at PSU, in a release. “But if they don’t need to change their everyday behavior, and can instead try to change their state of mind by becoming more mindful, they can probably see this beneficial effect.”

The researchers wanted to find solutions for the 50-plus percent of U.S. college students who experience anxiety, sadness, and/or mental exhaustion at least once a year. Since students move frequently in their day-to-day lives, be it walking to and from classes, or engaging in campus activities, the research team wanted to see if there is a connection between mindfulness, movement, and a reduction in the various negative mental states.

For the study, 158 PSU students were recruited. An app called “Paco” was installed on the participants’ phones, prompting the students randomly eight times a day to answer questions about their activity at that very moment and their state of mind. The questions included inquiries about where the students are, whether they are moving, and whether they are stressed or anxious.

The results showed that when the students were more mindful, their stress and anxiety levels were reduced — particularly when they were more active than others.

“When people were both more mindful and more active than usual, they seem to have this extra decrease in negative affect,” says Yang. “Being more active in a given moment is already going to reduce negative affect, but by also being more mindful than usual at the same time, you can see this amplified affect.”

A second portion of the study had a group of older adults take part in an outdoor mindfulness activity. Researchers found those who partook in mindful walking experienced reduced feelings of stress, anxiety, or depression.

Perhaps the most important takeaway for those who might think practicing mindful movement is too difficult, Yang says it really doesn’t require very much more than what they’re already doing in that moment.

“You don’t need to exert a lot of extra effort in order to improve your wellbeing by being more mindful while you’re moving around,” he says.

The study was published in the journal Psychology of Sports and Exercise.

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