Mindfulness And Exercise: Helping Students Cope With Stress

College can be a stressful time as students adjust to increasing autonomy and responsibilities, resulting in the rising and prevalence of poor mental health including heightened stress, anxiety levels, and negative emotional states in college students. A recent report from the American College Health Association (ACHA) revealed that a large proportion of college students experienced various deleterious emotional states including overwhelming anxiety, sadness, and mental exhaustion at least once a year. These negative experiences have also been impacting their academic performance substantially.

A variety of interventions targeting behavioral or psychological aspects have been proposed or established to cope with stress and negative emotions. For example, changing lifestyle by engaging in physical activity is one of the options. Another popular option, practicing mindfulness (a particular form of awareness and attention), has also been widely introduced into stress management interventions over the past few decades. It is logical to expect a synergistic effect in improving people’s well-being when people were both mindful and active.

However, most of the studies in these areas have focused on the differences between people who are more active/mindful versus people who are less active/mindful. Also, the associations between physical activity, mindfulness, and negative affective experiences were often studied separately, and no study so far has sought to understand whether mindful experience during physical activity may determine how physical activity is linked with stress in college students’ everyday lives. Thus, we were interested to understand whether individuals’ subjective experience of mindfulness level during physical activity may determine how physical activity is impacting their negative affect. We aimed to test if there is a significant within-person association between momentary activity and mindfulness state in predicting negative affect among college students.

To answer our research question, a 2-week longitudinal study with ecological momentary assessment (EMA) method was conducted to examine the potential interactions between mindfulness and daily activity on stress within college students’ daily life. Ecological momentary assessment is a data collection approach that assesses people’s in-vivo experience and/or behavior multiple times within a day or across days. In this way, it reduces recall bias as existed in most of the retrospective self-report tools and is thus considered more ecologically valid to represent what is going on in people’s everyday lives.

Credit: Jason Yang

A total of 158 university students participated in this 14-day study, in which they completed up to 8 randomly-delivered short surveys from a smartphone app (PACO) each day. Following each prompt, they reported their activity behavior (moving or standing or sitting) and rated their subjective experience of stress and mindfulness at the moment they were prompted. Overall, we received 14,591 self-reports (78% response rate), with an average of 92 reports from each participant across 14 days. Almost all the responses (99%) were provided during their waking time between 8 AM to 12 PM midnight. After accounting for participants’ basic demographics (i.e., age, gender) and several temporal factors (i.e., time of the day, day of the week), we identified significant interplay between students’ concurrent activity behaviors and mindfulness states in predicting their negative affect using multilevel statistical modeling. Specifically, we found that at moments when they were more mindful than usual, the momentary stress-activity association became stronger with moving activity. In other words, when students are more mindful in a given time than their usual level, the more they move relative to sitting, the greater the decrease of stress they experience.

Our findings were consistent with previous intervention studies showing that engaging in mindful physical activity is associated with lower perceived negative affect. Dissimilar from previous studies mainly focusing on the efficacy of formal mindful-movement programs in reducing negative affect, the current study identified similar association in everyday context without structured mindfulness-based intervention involved. However, there were several limitations need to be noted. For physical activity measurement, we did not differentiate participants’ daily moving behaviors into different intensities of physical activity. The predictor of physical activity in our analysis was, in fact, a mix of different intensities of everyday activities. It would be ideal to utilize objective measures of physical activity such as accelerometers in future studies, which is considered a gold standard in investigating daily variations in physical activity and affective experiences. Further, the significant results in the current study may be population-specific and may not be generalized to other populations, such as older adults or children. Finally, the EMA method applied in the current study is observational-based and not an experimental design. Temporal directions between predictors and the outcome in our study were not deterministic, so the causal inference cannot be inferred.

In conclusion, our findings suggest that people’s mindfulness level while engaging in physical activity may be critical to consider in future studies. Especially for college students suffering from elevated stress, being more mindful while moving in everyday context may be able to help them produce a greater experience of negative affect reduction. Developing the ability to shift into these states of mindfulness as needed may be valuable for improving self-regulation and well-being.

Another implication from this study is that it can be quite difficult to ask people to spend a lot of time working out in the gym or out for a run if they are already stressed, but if they can instead try to change their state of mind by becoming more mindful in their everyday movements, they probably can experience this beneficial effect without changing their daily routine. This message may be especially beneficial for people who don’t enjoy exercise and would prefer a less intense form of physical activity.

If someone is looking for a way to manage negative emotions, it may be worth trying some sort of mindful movement while you’re moving around!

These findings are described in the article entitled Momentary negative affect is lower during mindful movement than while sitting: An experience sampling study, recently published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise.