Under the Hood

Being Mindful When You Move Can Lower Stress, Anxiety

It is well-known that physical activity can not only help you become fit but also reduce stress. New findings showed how being mindful during any such activity, even if it's just a walk to the bus stop, can make a big difference to your mental health.

The study titled "Momentary negative affect is lower during mindful movement than while sitting: An experience sampling study" was published in the journal Psychology of Sports and Exercise on May 9.  

As many as 158 students from Penn State University were recruited for the study. They were asked to download a smartphone app called Paco which would alert them eight times a day with questions. They would be asked to note what they were doing, how mindful they were (that is, how focused they were on the present moment), what their stress levels were and how their overall mood was.

After analyzing 14 days worth of data, the researchers noted a strong association. The more mindful or active participants were during a moment, the lesser were their levels of stress and anxiety.

"Most studies in this area have focused on the differences between people who are more  (mindful) versus people who are less mindful, but we saw that college students often slipped in and out of mindful states during the day," explained study author David Conroy, a professor of kinesiology at the university.

"Developing the ability to shift into these states of mindfulness as needed may be valuable for improving self-regulation and well-being," he added.

Many college students report high levels of stress, anxiety, and even depression. To identify simple ways to reduce these negative effects, the researchers examined whether mindful movement could be used.

This study only noted an association and could not prove causality. So lead researcher Chih-Hsiang "Jason" Yang, who earned his doctorate at Penn State, conducted a second study featuring older adults to gain a better understanding.

Participants, who had an average age of 73, walked outdoors and were asked to practice mindfulness while doing so — paying close attention to the present moment, observing the sights and sounds around them, their own sensations, etc.

At the end of the study, the participants reported lower feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. The findings will be published in Journal of Aging and Physical Activity.

Yang explained that not everyone can spend a lot of time performing moderate or vigorous physical activity due to factors like age or work schedules. But simply trying to be more mindful when moving around can improve well-being significantly without the need to exert a lot of extra effort.

"Being more active in a given moment is already going to reduce [stress and anxiety], but by also being more mindful than usual at the same time, you can see this amplified effect," he said.