If we could bundle the effects of exercise into a pill that could be prescribed, it would be a best seller. The benefits of exercise are numerous and well documented and include stress reduction and improved physical and mental health. Exercise has been shown to help focus in people who have ADHD and to improve creativity. And, of course, exercise is good for fighting stress.
Another multi-purpose tool is mindfulness meditation, which is effective for many issues, including executive function issues such as focus. Mindfulness has been extensively studied for its effects on depression and anxiety and has been repeatedly shown to be effective. Mindfulness has also been shown to be helpful at reducing stress.
And what’s even better? Combining activity with mindfulness!
Research has demonstrated that combining both mindfulness and activity together yields a greater reduction in stress than either on its own. And notice I said “activity.” This works even if you are walking across the parking lot or taking the stairs. (That said, I’m not claiming you’ll get the same physical benefits overall as a more vigorous workout, just that researchers have found that intensity isn’t the key when it comes to stress relief; the key is activity). Those who don’t like to exercise vigorously or have physical limitations preventing such exercise may be glad to know that this appears to work with less intense activity such as walking. What is mindful activity? In mindful activity, attention is focused on what is happening in the present moment. For example, in mindful walking, your attention might be on noticing the sights and sounds surrounding you, on feeling the texture of the ground under your feet (is it grass or concrete or dirt or rocks, etc?). It is being aware of your legs moving, of your foot leaving the ground, moving forward, and coming back to earth again, of your arms swinging gently as you walk. It is noticing that the air is hot, warm, cool, cold, or pleasant and perhaps you can smell freshly mown grass or roses in bloom. Perhaps you hear the breeze rustling leaves or dogs barking or cars driving nearby. You might feel the breeze on your face or notice your heart pumping in your chest. By focusing on the present moment, you provide yourself with a break from ruminations about the past (often the basis of depression) and worries about future possibilities (which feeds anxiety).
This study found benefit in even brief bouts of activity coupled with mindfulness. As is the case with many research studies, college students were the subjects of the study. Students’ focus, then, was shifting throughout the day, with periods of mindfulness coupled with activity when walking between classes, for example. If you work at a stressful job– and it’s a rare person who doesn’t!—then it could pay dividends to find a minute or two here and there during your day to walk mindfully, perhaps by taking the long route to a restroom or walking out to your car or around the building. Or take the stairs mindfully rather than using the elevator.
This is my own speculation here as the study didn’t look into this but we know from other research that mindfulness meditation leads to actual changes in the brain’s wiring. We can show this on fMRI scans after only 6 or 8 weeks of practice. And a study I highlighted in the recent In the News post discussed how researchers had found that Yoga and Chi meditations led to permanent physiological changes in stress responses. When I put this together it leads me to wonder if those seemingly unimportant minute activities with mindfulness might not be punching above their weight class after a time. In other words, I suspect that cumulatively, those brief minutes here and there add up to real and lasting stress-reducing benefits when done repeatedly over time. These studies didn’t look into mental health benefits, but I’m willing to bet that, over time, we could find improvements there, as well.
If you are intrigued but not sure how to get started, you’ll find a helpful write-up here which also includes a 10-minute audio to “walk” you through your mindful walking.
If you are stressed out, you sure aren’t alone even if you feel like it. Stress is epidemic in our culture. I invite you to call me at (816) 226-4678 and make an appointment. We’ll talk about where the stresses are in your life and work together to create a comprehensive plan to address the stresses. If you have been feeling alone in your stress, you’ll find a partner with me.