When it comes to exercise, many of us are full of good intentions but not much action. I’ve been meaning to go to the gym, we tell our friends, and their heads nod in understanding.
We accept this state of affairs as normal, but maybe we shouldn’t. If we can’t get ourselves to do something like exercise, which is pretty much unequivocally beneficial—to our health, no less—what hope do we have in motivating ourselves toward more complex goals and aspirations?
Past research has linked mindfulness to better health, so a group of researchers set out to investigate whether mindfulness might play a role in the interplay between feeling motivated to exercise and actually getting up and doing it. And, indeed, they found that the more mindful we are, the more likely we are to translate motivation for physical activity into action.
In their study, published recently in Mindfulness, researchers asked a group of 244 French students about their levels of mindfulness—moment-by-moment, nonjudgmental awareness of thoughts and feelings—in daily life. The researchers also asked why they were motivated to exercise (if at all) and how physically active they were over the past week.
In particular, they focused on intrinsic motivation. People who are self-motivated to exercise are more likely to find it fun and satisfying, rather than (for example) feeling pressured by a family member or guilty for skipping a session.
For less mindful participants, the intrinsic motivation to exercise wasn’t at all linked to higher physical activity. Even those who think sweating it out at the gym is fun weren’t exercising more than the rest of the group if they were also low in mindfulness. But as mindfulness increased, that link between motivation and physical activity became stronger and stronger. Mindfulness seemed to be activating participants’ intentions, and helping translate them into action.
What if you aren’t one of those people who finds exercise pleasurable? (Who are those people, anyway?) Many of us are somewhat less enthusiastic about physical activity, but still acknowledge it to be important and beneficial—a slightly different type of motivation. Can mindfulness still help us?
The researchers can’t say for certain—they didn’t analyze this in the study—but here’s how it might work: Mindfulness involves heightened attention and awareness, which can take us off of autopilot (where we loaf around and watch TV every night rather than taking a brisk walk, for instance). Mindfulness also involves acceptance, which could buffer against feelings of failure related to exercise (Why should I start now? I’m way out of shape). Mindfulness might help would-be exercisers acknowledge their doubts and insecurities, but still be open to opportunities for change.
Future research may dig into these exact mechanisms, and also look at motivation and mindfulness in other domains. Could all of our latent intentions—to eat healthy, control our temper, or stay in better touch with friends—be activated with a bit of mindfulness? Perhaps so.
Now, all we have to do is motivate ourselves to practice mindfulness in the first place.