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Aerobic Exercise Helps Boost Mindfulness

German researchers report men who took up running got an additional benefit: The ability to better stay focused in the present moment.
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(Photo: Warren Goldswain/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Warren Goldswain/Shutterstock)

The benefits of mindfulness have been widely catalogued in recent years. The ability to be fully present in the moment, rather than zoning out or letting your mind wander, appears to have a positive influence on everything from test scores to PTSD.

But for some people—especially men—the methods often used to cultivate this mental stillness, such as yoga and meditation, don’t feel like a good fit. Fortunately, new research from Germany finds an alternative approach that action-oriented folks will find much more appealing.

You don’t have to sit cross-legged on the floor. Rather, all you need to do is hit the track—and keep running.

Neurological studies have found physical training can boost the functioning of the anterior cingulate cortex, a brain region that has been linked to "improved self-regulation of attention."

“Dispositional mindfulness can be increased through regular aerobic exercise,” writes a research team led by Hendrik Mothes of the University of Freiburg’s Institute of Sports Science. Its study, published in the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity, finds a regimen of “relaxation training” did not have the same positive effect.

The study featured 118 physically inactive men recruited from “banks, insurance companies, and public services institutions” in Freiburg, Germany. Forty of them completed a 12-week aerobic exercise program, featuring two hour-long weekly sessions of “heart rate-controlled running training for beginners.”

Forty-one spent the same amount of time on a “relaxation program for beginners,” in which they learned such basic techniques as progressive muscle relaxation. Another 37 were put on a wait list and did not receive either type of training.

Directly before and after the 12-week period, all participants answered a series of questions measuring their physical fitness, physical and mental health, and their perceived level of habitual mindfulness. The latter was gauged by noting their responses to such statements as “I find myself doing things without paying attention.”

The key result: “Dispositional mindfulness increased significantly over the course of the 12-week intervention in the exercise group,” the researchers report. It did not rise for members of the relaxation-training or wait-list groups.

“The aerobic exercises included in the intervention were not per se mindful in character (like yoga, Pilates or tai chi),” the researchers emphasize. “Instead, the aerobic exercise intervention consisted of the everyday sport activity running.”

So why were the runners better able to quiet and focus their minds? The researchers offer several possible explanations. They note that exercise impacts one’s rate of breathing, heart rate, and temperature, making one more aware of one’s body. This awareness “may have led to higher dispositional mindfulness,” they note.

They also point out that neurological studies have found physical training can boost the functioning of the anterior cingulate cortex, a brain region that has been linked to “improved self-regulation of attention.” It’s quite possible that, thanks to the exercise program, the men were better able to stay focused and ignore the thoughts buzzing about in their heads.

So now we all have yet another reason to exercise: Not only does it benefit our bodies, it also helps us stay mindful. If you’re not into yoga pants, that track suit will do just fine.