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Why Mind/Body Exercise?

Mind/body activities continue to draw large groups of participants from all walks of life, all ages and all levels of fitness. What is behind their appeal?

"I don't get it," your supervisor, who is also a tennis instructor, muses at your monthly staff meeting. "We keep adding more sections of yoga and Pilates, but the people keep coming - and asking for even more. Why are these activities so popular? They don't have enough action for me. And why are they called mind/body exercise? If they are mind/body exercise, what is tennis? Tennis is both mentally and physically demanding! Can someone explain it to me: What is the big deal?"

Mind/body activities offer an inward, meditative state as one of their objectives. When mind/body activities like yoga, tai chi and Pilates first began appearing in fitness centers, many health professionals wondered if these activities would really capture the interest of busy members. After all, our culture favors an outward focus that values measurable results, materialism and productivity. We like to count things: steps, reps, sets, calories, laps and minutes. Would our clients be able to relate to the meditative focus of mind/body activities?

The answer is a resounding yes! Mind/body activities continue to draw large groups of participants from all walks of life, all ages and all levels of fitness. What is behind their appeal?

Holistic approach

The term "mind/body" implies a oneness of mental and physical capacities. Of course, this oneness is always present in real life: Mind and body work together in everything we do. An athlete competing in any event must maximize both mental and physical function for peak performance.

Sport can be pursued in a holistic fashion. So can group exercise activities. As both writers and athletes have observed, sport participation can lead to a holistic, in-the-moment awareness experience, when the athlete becomes one with the game. But most of the time, most athletes are not in this state of mind while playing their sport, and it is not a primary goal of sport or exercise for most participants.

In contrast, mindful awareness, a non-judgmental observation of what is occurring in the present moment, is an integral part of mind/body activities such as yoga and tai chi. Awareness is focused on breathing, body sensations, thoughts and feelings.

Mind/body/spirit

Many mind/body activities also include a spiritual component. This is especially true for activities such as yoga, tai chi and many forms of martial arts, which have their roots in Eastern philosophy. While most of these activities do not require that participants adhere to a specific religion, they promote certain moral values such as integrity and respect for others. They emphasize our connectedness to each other and our environment. Many clients appreciate the spiritual component of mind/body activities as a balance to our primarily sectarian culture.

Therapeutic value

Activities such as yoga and Pilates have been shown to produce therapeutic results for some people. These health benefits seem to stem from improved posture and body mechanics, and from the stress-reduction benefits of these activities.

Many mind/body activities use a mindful focus combined with stretching and strengthening exercises to help people develop better posture and alignment both during exercise and in daily life. Pilates, the Feldenkrais method and Alexander technique are well known for their therapeutic success due to improved core strengthening and/or body mechanics.

All of these mind/body activities (and, in fact, most exercise) can improve mood and reduce feelings of stress. Reducing stress, in turn, lowers risk of stress-related illnesses and reduces symptoms of stress, such as high blood pressure and excess muscle tension.

It's important, however, for fitness professionals not to overstate these therapeutic claims, and to urge clients to use therapeutic exercise in conjunction with standard medical treatment for health problems.

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