April is Stress Awareness Month, a national, cooperative effort to inform people about the dangers of stress, provide resources for successful coping strategies and eliminate harmful misconceptions about stress. Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected people around the globe, increasing stress levels in a variety of ways. Not surprisingly, people are searching for ways to ease their stress challenges.
As a health and exercise professional, it is essential that you have a comprehensive knowledge of the tools available to help yourself, your clients and your participants recognize negative stressors and their impact on health, and how to use these tools to produce positive behavior change.
The National Institute of Mental Health describes stress this way: “Stress is how the brain and body respond to any demand. Any type of challenge—such as performance at work or school, a significant life change, or a traumatic event.” Stress can also be healthful and essential in keeping an individual alert; however, intense or prolonged stress can be overwhelming on the mind and body. Two of the major forms of stress are acute and chronic stress. Research has shown that chronic stressors are associated with poor health behaviors that put all adults at greater risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity, mental disorders and more.
Health professionals in all fields offer recommendations on how people can manage stress, yet these recommendations may be confusing or difficult for individuals to put into practice and stick to over the long term. Mindfulness practices are particularly effective, and wearable technology, self-guided apps such as Headspace, Calm, Insight Timer and Gaia, and live streaming yoga and meditation classes are making them more accessible. In a published study conducted at Google and Roche, in which employees used Headspace for eight weeks, participants reported a 46% reduction in depression, a 31% reduction in anxiety, and improved positivity and well-being.
Of course, you should always work with clients and participants within your scope of practice, and avoid diagnosing perceived mental health issues. If a client expresses strong negative emotions or exhibits self-destructive behaviors, they may need to be referred to a licensed mental health professional.
How then can you use the tools of mindfulness with your clients during classes or training sessions to create behavior changes that reduce the impact of negative stressors? Stress reduction methodology is often presented as a suggestion with only a modicum of support from the recommender. Telling a client to “aim for seven to nine hours of sleep,” “meditate every day” or “take deep breaths to relieve tension” is not specific enough. A more effective approach is to incorporate these suggestions into live training sessions. For example, a session opening might include questions and statements to first create a positive mindset:
- Ask about the participant’s state of mind “in this moment.”
- Reflect an understanding of their responses.
- Ask for feedback on a previous training experience or class.
- Reflect something positive about participants (e.g., highlights, previous successes, strengths or emotions).
- Briefly discuss the goals and expectations for the session.
After gathering and assessing this information, try actively incorporate mindfulness practices into your session by recommending the following approaches:
Breathing is always a focus in yoga and meditation sessions; however, participants in muscular and cardiorespiratory training sessions can also benefit from measured and specific breathing techniques. Efficient use of the breath can produce improved fitness, resulting in increased client confidence and self-efficacy. Ultimately, teaching clients how to breathe properly during a session gives them a guided approach to using breath as a stress-reduction technique in their daily lives.
Journaling and expressive writing are mindfulness tools that can be incorporated before or after a session. In a two- to three-minute self-writing period, participants can glean insight into their feelings, both pre- and post-session through journaling. The writing can be done either with a pen and paper or via a mobile device journaling application. Journaling can be empowering for many people and is an excellent problem-solving tool, in addition to a method of stress reduction. Research suggests that regular journaling can improve both mental and physical health, and is a widely accepted means for cultivating wellness.
You can make strategic musical choices, especially in group exercise sessions, to give participants motivational brain and body boosts. Music may be one of the most motivating factors for keeping many group fitness participants engaged, joyful and coming back to classes again and again.
As a health and exercise professional, you are always seeking ways to improve client retention, add value to your service offerings and enhance your participants’ experiences. Adding small and concise opportunities to incorporate mindfulness is an effective way to help clients and participants better manage their stress levels. Scientific research studies have shown the benefits of mindfulness practices, which can take many forms: breath awareness, journaling, sounds, simple sustained movement, or a single point of focus. These practices can help still the mind, and enable harmonious connections, which may result in positive behavior change and stress reduction.