Using Mindfulness to Enhance Physical Activity, Change Eating Behaviors, and Reduce Stress

by Kelliann Davis

We are living in the middle of an obesity epidemic, with approximately 68.5 percent of American adults classified as overweight—meaning a body mass index (BMI) range greater than 25—and 35 percent of those classified as obese, with BMI greater than 30. Obesity is associated with numerous chronic diseases and with an increased risk of mortality, and disproportionately affects minorities and those with low education and income. It remains an urgent health crisis and one that the School of Education Department of Health and Physical Activity is committed to improving.   

The current clinical guidelines for the management of overweight and obesity recommended treatment should consist of a comprehensive lifestyle intervention that assists adults in adhering to a reduced-calorie diet and in increasing physical activity through the use of behavioral strategies. This is the principal type of intervention that we deliver at the Physical Activity and Weight Management Research Center. However, despite our success with these behavioral interventions, we still see large variability in weight loss among participants, with many regaining most, if not all, of their lost weight. This difficulty has compelled us to research innovative ways to address the behavioral challenges of eating better and exercising more consistently.  

Left: Kelliann Davis leading her class through a deep breathing and introductory meditation. Right: Davis uses a raisin to help teach a mindful eating exercise.

One alternative approach that I am passionate about is using mindfulness as a way to enhance physical activity, change negative eating behaviors, reduce stress, and persist toward goal attainment. Mindfulness is characterized by being aware of, and paying attention to, what is taking place in the present moment--on purpose, free from judgment and reactivity. The process of becoming more mindful involves bringing one’s attention to the internal and external experiences occurring in the present without getting mired in thoughts or emotional reactions. Through mindfulness practice, individuals learn how to approach situations “mindfully” so they may respond in an appropriate and thoughtful way instead of reacting habitually. For example, being more mindful in everyday moments might prevent you from unconsciously grabbing the cookie in the kitchen and eating it before you even had time to consider that you had a choice in the matter!

Mindfulness-based interventions have gained empirical support for their usefulness in improving psychological flexibility and awareness, and for decreasing emotional reactivity, rumination, and stress. It has been shown that these improvements may foster greater responsibility for life choices, better management of one’s health, and potentially better adherence to a diet and physical activity regimen. Although little has been done to evaluate the role of mindfulness training in the treatment of overweight and obesity, results of our own pilot study revealed that following a six-month intervention, individuals who received additional mindfulness training lost significantly more weight than the individuals who received the standard treatment alone. I also presented data to the Society of Behavioral Medicine from our examination of the relationship between changes in mindful eating behaviors and weight loss across an 18-month intervention. We found that as mindful eating increased, body weight decreased over time.

Although these short-term results show promise, successfully maintaining weight loss beyond six months requires a different set of skills, and my hypothesis is that becoming more adept at self-regulation and stress management through mindfulness training may further enhance the ability to sustain these new behaviors long-term. To test this hypothesis, we are currently conducting a small pilot study in which we are comparing two weight loss maintenance interventions, with one group receiving standard guidelines and the other group receiving mindfulness training. Participants in the mindfulness group were introduced to meditations, mindful eating and exercise strategies, and ways to cultivate self-awareness. They learned how to create value-centered goals and were taught how to be mindful during everyday activities. The intervention is complete, and we are in the process of collecting the three- and six-month follow-up data now. If effective, results from this study can inform future interventions and clinical guidelines for obesity treatment.

We aim to be at the forefront of investigating this approach and are currently seeking NIH funding to further explore yoga and mindfulness interventions for obesity and associated outcomes. I have found through my own practice and from observing others who practice mindfulness that being a little more mindful can improve many facets of our lives, and my hope is that this includes the treatment of obesity.

Kelliann Davis is an assistant professor in the School of Education’s Health and Physical Activity Department.