Ex­hal­ing the win­ter blues

Sim­ple tech­niques might shore up one’s com­mit­ment to be­ing phys­i­cally ac­tive as the sea­sons change

The Hindu - - BEING - Gretchen Reynolds

For many of us, the shorter, chill­ier days of au­tumn can dampen our en­thu­si­asm for ex­er­cise. But a new study sug­gests that some sim­ple tech­niques might shore up our com­mit­ment to be­ing phys­i­cally ac­tive as the sea­sons change, and one of them, sur­pris­ingly, is to learn to med­i­tate.

Among ex­er­cise sci­en­tists and en­thu­si­asts, Novem­ber is recog­nised as a Ru­bi­con. Many com­mit­ted, ex­pe­ri­enced ex­er­cis­ers will con­tinue to be ac­tive dur­ing this month and the re­main­der of the win­ter. But oth­ers’ will­ing­ness can wa­ver at this time of year, and they be­come more se­den­tary.

Sea­sonal drift

A study of ex­er­cise be­hav­iour pub­lished ear­lier this year found that, on av­er­age, peo­ple moved about 11 fewer min­utes per day in win­ter than dur­ing the sum­mer. Since for some peo­ple, 11 min­utes rep­re­sents much of their daily ac­tiv­ity time, this drop-off is sub­stan­tial and wor­ri­some. But lit­tle re­search has delved into how to com­bat the sea­sonal drift to­ward in­ac­tiv­ity.

So for the new study, which was pub­lished in Septem­ber in

Medicine & Sci­ence in Sports & Ex­er­cise,

re­searchers at the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son, Iowa State Univer­sity and other in­sti­tu­tions set out to ex­am­ine dif­fer­ent ways to in­spire peo­ple to keep mov­ing as a Mid­west­ern win­ter ap­proached.

For a va­ri­ety of rea­sons, they fo­cussed on hav­ing peo­ple start a reg­u­lar, struc­tured ex­er­cise rou­tine or learn mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion. The first op­tion, us­ing work­outs to com­bat in­ac­tiv­ity, makes in­tu­itive sense. But mind­ful­ness, which is pri­mar­ily a men­tal ex­er­cise, might seem a more un­likely way to mo­ti­vate peo­ple to move.

The re­searchers, how­ever, who al­ready were study­ing the ef­fects of ex­er­cise and mind­ful­ness on the risk for colds, sus­pected that both pro­grammes might al­ter how peo­ple felt about their bod­ies, which could sway whether they re­mained in mo­tion through­out the year.

To find out, they re­cruited 49 healthy but in­ac­tive men and women who had never med­i­tated and, be­gin­ning in late sum­mer, asked each to wear an ac­tiv­ity mon­i­tor for a week. The mon­i­tors tracked how much the men and women walked and oth­er­wise moved through­out the day.

Then they ran­domly as­signed the vol­un­teers to start ex­er­cis­ing, med­i­tat­ing or con­tinue with their nor­mal lives as a con­trol group.

The ex­er­cis­ers’ weekly pro­gramme con­sisted of un­su­per­vised walk­ing or jog­ging, with the aim of work­ing out for at least 20 min­utes a day and ide­ally for 40 min­utes or more. Once a week they also vis­ited the univer­sity for sev­eral hours of in­struc­tion and a group work­out.

Learn­ing to med­i­tate

Mean­while, the mind­ful­ness group was learn­ing to med­i­tate, fol­low­ing a stan­dard mind­ful­ness in­struc­tion pro­gramme that fo­cusses on at­tend­ing to the present mo­ment and check­ing in on how your body feels. The peo­ple in this group prac­tised body scans and mind­ful walk­ing, in ad­di­tion to the usual quiet, seated med­i­ta­tions. Like those in the ex­er­cise group, they at­tended a weekly ses­sion on cam­pus, but most of their med­i­ta­tions were com­pleted at home.

Both of these pro­grammes lasted for two months, which, in this study, took peo­ple through Septem­ber and Oc­to­ber and into the early days of Novem­ber.

Then, with win­ter on the hori­zon, the vol­un­teers, in­clud­ing those in the con­trol group, wore an ac­tiv­ity mon­i­tor for an­other week. None of them knew that the study’s aim was to track their ac­tiv­i­ties; they thought it was look­ing at colds.

But the two pro­grammes did seem to have had an in­flu­ence, ac­cord­ing to data from the mon­i­tors. Most no­tice­ably, the men and the women in the con­trol group were much less ac­tive now, in the late fall, than they had been in the sum­mer, av­er­ag­ing al­most 18 fewer min­utes a day of walk­ing and oth­er­wise mov­ing about.

But the men and women in the other two groups had not be­come quite so in­ac­tive, although they were no longer be­ing asked to ex­er­cise or med­i­tate. They were mov­ing a bit less than they had been in the sum­mer­time, but only by about six min­utes a day.

These re­sults sur­prised the re­searchers, says Ja­cob Meyer, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of ki­ne­si­ol­ogy at Iowa State, who con­ducted the study with Bruce Bar­rett and other col­leagues. They had ex­pected the ex­er­cise pro­gramme to get peo­ple fa­mil­iar with and in­ter­ested in the idea of mov­ing, he says. “But we did not ex­pect the mind­ful­ness train­ing to have the ef­fect that it had,” he says.

How an in­tro­duc­tion to med­i­ta­tion prod­ded peo­ple to stay rel­a­tively ac­tive as win­ter ap­proached is not clear, he says.

The re­searchers also can­not say from this study why the ex­er­cise pro­gramme like­wise mo­ti­vated peo­ple to re­main ac­tive in au­tumn, or why it was not more ef­fec­tive than learn­ing to med­i­tate.

But Dr. Meyer sus­pects that each pro­gramme may have in­creased peo­ple’s sense of in­te­gra­tion with their bod­ies and nudged them to be some­what more aware of whether, how and when they moved.

He and his col­leagues hope larger fu­ture stud­ies will help them tease out which as­pects of each pro­gramme were most help­ful and whether com­bin­ing ex­er­cise and mind­ful­ness might be more ef­fec­tive at keep­ing peo­ple ac­tive than ei­ther ap­proach alone, even as win­ter sets in.

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