Last month, I read an article in The New York Times on some surprising new research about “mindfulness” and exercise. The story went a bit viral with health bloggers who rushed to post these findings, and it swept me along accordingly. (Translate the word “mindfulness” as used in this study not as a kind of spirituality but simply as the act of paying attention to what you’re doing.)
The article reported on the results of a research study on whether or not “mindfulness” plays a role helping people stick with exercise. I was so intrigued by this question that I looked up and read the original study, authored by a group of Dutch scientists at Utrecht University, The Netherlands. It turned out that the team’s report, unlike typical research papers, grabbed me like a chapter out of “Freakonomics” with its novel insights. Here in brief are the study’s three main conclusions:
- Being mindful during exercise makes it a more positive experience, even if you basically don’t like exercise, so you’re more likely keep doing it.
Switching to mindful exercise has less of an impact on people who already exercise regularly than on exercise beginners, who are significantly more likely to stick with an exercise routine if it engages them mentally.
- But here’s the twist! Once exercise becomes a habit, it’s by nature less mindful since habits are acts you do without having to think about them. Even at this stage, the researchers found, continued mindfulness has an impact. The subjects of the study who managed to stay mindful after they’d acquired the exercise habit were even more likely not to fall off the wagon than those who’d begun to zone out during their workouts.
These findings gave me an “aha” moment. Students have told me for years that the Bar Method is the only workout they’ve ever stuck with, and I’ve always suspected that the reason is that the workout demands a high degree of mindfulness. The Dutch study finally connected the dots for me between the many testimonials I get about how addicting The Bar Method is and the workout’s focus on keeping students mentally engaged.
Look at this idea – that there is a connection between mindfulness and stick-to-itiveness – as if you were taking a Bar Method class, and you’ll see how the mental component of the workout motivates you to want to repeat the experience. First, you know that your teacher and fellow students do not allow for slacking off (unless you’re modifying due to a medical condition), so you must collect your wits about you in order not to let up when your muscles start to burn. On top of that, the class demands that you stay in the exercise in good posture. Lose focus and drop your head, slump, or ease up on a move a few times, and your teacher will gently remind you by name to get back in form, then later compliment you on maintaining that form. You also hear the reminders and compliments that your teacher gives to your fellow students, and these too help you to keep your attention on your performance. These frequent prompts make the class a learning experience that you’re motivated to do again.
Once you become a regular student, the class continues to engross you because you’ve now seen and felt changes, and you’re excited to be progressing towards your personal goals. The methodical nature of the class has allowed you to improve step by step, and you increasingly enjoy the support of your teachers and your classmates along the way. A goal, for example, might be to increase your stamina during thigh-work or to heal after an injury. Possibly you want better posture, and you feel the workout both strengthening your back and mentally training you to carry yourself more upright. If your goal is to be more flexible, you take satisfaction in gradually weaning yourself off of straps and stall-bars. Finally, there are all the changes in your body and self-confidence that the Bar Method delivers like a gift with every class. These changes snowball into a feedback loop that spurs you to focus more and more on the details of the form, which you’ve learned are key for continuing body change. Ultimately, doing a mindful workout gives you a whole new reason for exercising: It becomes an experience you simply enjoy for its own sake.
Let me know your thoughts about mindful exercise.
As a former business reporter, I have tremendous respect and admiration for journalists. Their stories help guide our life decisions. At the same time, journalists have a responsibility to report the truth since their stories can impact the subjects themselves for the better or worse. Journalists realize this and for the most part do their best to get their stories right.
In the case of The Bar Method, the press has mostly gotten it right, for which I am grateful. Occasionally they don’t, despite their good intentions. Reporters may have come at the story with pre-conceived notions, put style over substance in an effort to entertain, or downplayed the facts to make a personal point. The following three articles are examples of these journalistic pitfalls. All three were recently published and cover a subject I’m especially familiar with, The Bar Method.
Pitfall #1. The Whirlwind Tour
The quick tour of many different workouts is a popular story format for exercise reporters. In this scenario, the writer takes one class each at different studios or gyms, then reports on her or his personal impressions. The drawback of this approach is that these reporters usually aren’t fans of the workouts themselves, making it unlikely that they’ll gain any insight on their potential value to their readers.
This is the case with an article written by Huffington Post’s Rozalynn Frazier called “Are Barre Classes Worth The Buzz?” Rozalynn, a long-distance runner, took one class each at five different barre-based workouts. I applaud Frazier’s spirit in taking on this challenging assignment. However, taking a single class at five barre studios is about as useful as attending orientation day at a five colleges to determine the calibre of knowledge their graduates will acquire. Barre fitness classes in particular do not lend themselves to casual “toe in the water” testing. The moves are subtle, the techniques demand some dedication, and the results are huge. A beginner such as Frazier could not possibly have learned from a single class how greatly that class changes its students’ bodies, posture and well being. Nor could Frazier have noticed whether or not each studio she visited keeps track of its students’ progress and supports them over time. What’s more, Frazier is unlikely to have nailed the proper form of the exercises herself on her first try and so probably didn’t feel much happening to her own body.
In the end, Frazier could only come up with one random comment about the Bar Method (beyond what she’d already read on our website). “I was surprised,” she wrote, “given the name, at how little time we spent at the bar.” Frazier completely missed The Bar Method’s most distinctive features: the efficiency of its workout, its exceptional focus on posture and athleticism, and its unique interactive learning environment in which teachers give their students in-class coaching and support. Nothing in Frazier’s investigation touched on these benefits because she could not have discovered them within a “whirlwind tour” format.
Pitfall #2. The Personal Axe to Grind
The New Journalism became popular in the 60s when authors such as Truman Capote, Hunter Thompson and Norman Mailer shifted to a more personalized style of reporting. Today, exercise reporters are using this subjective writing style to better connect with their readers’ feelings of vulnerability when it comes to working out. The downside of this strategy is that the writers can allow their emotions to dictate the content of the story, to the detriment of the truth.
This is what happened with Sadie Chanlett-Avery, author of an article called, “Why I Quit The Bar Method.” Chanlett-Avery has a masters degree in holistic health. At the start of her article she stated that she would use her barre-fitness experience as “my personal study of fitness and female body image.” This author’s effort to turn her workout story into a statement on women’s self-image was probably what led her to bend the truth to fit her arguments.
First of all, Chanlett-Avery did not quit The Bar Method, because the workout she attended was not The Bar Method, which does not, as she describes, use “pink dumbbells,” lift weights with palms facing down as illustrated in the photo, use lots of Katy Perry tunes, or use the term “trouble-zones.” I’m sorry to say that Chanlett-Avery’s misstatement of the name of the workout that she “quit” was the first of a number of fallacious statements, for example:
- “Relying on mirrors actually detracts from our awareness of how we move.” In fact, mirrors are an invaluable tool for improving posture, alignment, coordination, for developing good patterns of motion, keeping joints safe and well-aligned, and for teaching the body how to recruit muscles quickly and accurately.
- “Isolating muscle groups for ‘toning’ perpetuates the debunked idea of spot reduction.” The truth is that millions of people around the world, including dancers, body builders, gym goers, physical therapy patients, and barre fitness students isolate their muscles to tone them, not to “spot reduce” them.
- Stretching “is another activity that isn’t supported by current exercise science – muscles have fixed origins and insertions, so their lengths don’t change.” This statement is simply untrue. Regular stretching increases muscle length and range of motion. My own physiology textbook confirms that stretching does indeed “elongate” muscles.
What’s most telling about the underlying bias throughout Chanlett-Avery’s story is her evident distain for the very idea of body toning classes and for the students who take them. In the article she complains that the students of these classes wear “diamond rings” and are “chasing an elusive idea of perfection.” Chanlett-Avery might come to terms with the fact that wearing diamond rings is a common custom among married women everywhere, not a sign of vanity as she implies. She should also know that The Bar Method (perhaps not the class she took) is known for its diversity of students and its supportiveness of individual goals.
At the end of the article, Chanlett-Avery said that she is now a satisfied student at Cross-Fit. I’m glad she found the right exercise class for her.
Pitfall #3. Reliance on fake experts
Worst among the fallacious articles on exercise I’ve recently come across is one that uses fake experts to distort the truth, possibly for their own self-interest. This article appeared on “Yahoo Health” and was written by Amy Rushlow, a “certified strength and conditioning specialist.”
Rushlow gets it wrong from the beginning in her title, “Barre Method: What’s True, What’s Hype & How To Stay Injury Free,” Rushlow did not fact-check the name of exercise genre she was writing about. In fact, The Bar Method owns the trademark “Barre Method.” It is a registered spelling of our brand name, not a generic term for barre-based workouts.
In her article Rushlow calls on three “experts,” personal trainers Marc Santa Maria, Nick Tumminello, and Eric Beard. Using this threesome of obvious non-experts on barre fitness to back her up, Rushlow explains “the facts behind the hype” about barre fitness, most of which are completely false. Here are four of her most egregious misstatements:
- “There is absolutely no way to increase a muscle’s length through exercise.” Again, this author’s experts need to consult their physiology textbooks.
- “Doing these isolated, small-muscle-type movements is not very metabolically demanding.” It’s obvious that Rushlow’s experts have never taken the Bar Method, which is a form of intense interval training that has been proved to burn away plenty of fat.
- “Many of the repetitive movements found in barre can possibly lead to overuse injuries.” Seriously? Barre classes keep students in one position for one or two minutes at a time. Athletes get repetitive use injuries from highly repetitive activities like running and working in poor form over time. Contrary to these “experts’” warnings, The Bar Method is therapeutic and healthy for the knees and lower back, a benefit that has been confirmed by many doctors and certified physical therapists with whom we’ve worked throughout the years. I am 67 years old, have regularly taken barre fitness for 34 years, and have never had a repetitive use injury from the class. Conversely, many of our students come to us from personal trainers or Cross Fit after having injured their shoulders and backs. True fitness experts know that no workout genre is in itself dangerous unless is it is carelessly taught.
- Last, and most serious of Rushlow’s misguided statements was her advice to her readers to “Limit yourself to one barre workout per week.” No way would that work, as any Bar Method student will tell you. To achieve results, Bar Method students quickly discover that three-to-five classes a week give them the best results, and tens of thousands of our students take this number of classes a week and feel fantastic, many of them in their 50s, 60s and 70s. This age group discovers that our workout is the only one they’ve found that feels good on their joints and at the same time gives them the challenge, support, results and fulfilling class experience that they want.
Regrettably, when Rushlow’s article came out, it caused anxiety among many Bar Method students. Some of them approached their teachers asking if it was okay to take more than one class a week. Rushlow could have spared our students this unnecessary concern by consulting true experts on her subject, among them sports medicine doctors, physical therapists, and barre fitness teachers themselves.
I love to make New Year’s resolutions, and most years, one of my promises to myself is to get better results from my workouts. If you’re like me and this goal is high on your resolution list, here’s a tip that can get you on your way: Whenever you work out to music, make it a project to sync your moves to its beat. Research studies have discovered that following a musical beat when you exercise improves your brain-muscle connection, not only making you look hotter on the dance floor but enabling your muscles to work harder during exercise, resulting in more tone and strength from your workouts. This is why Bar Method music mixes use exclusively tracks with a clear, strong beat for its strength exercises.
In this video Hoddy Potter, owner of the two Kansas City Bar Method studios, and I show you how it works.