What is mind-body exercise? Reflections on why the term is applied to some formats but not others

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Author: Shirley Archer
Date: June 2004
From: IDEA Fitness Journal(Vol. 1, Issue 1)
Publisher: IDEA Health & Fitness
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,564 words

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Now, more than ever, mind-body exercise programs are hot.

From 1998 through 2002, yoga and tai chi participation increased by 95 percent in the United States, according to American Sports Data (ASD) Inc. (ASD 2003a). By 2002, an estimated 11.1 million Americans were practicing tai chi or yoga and 4.7 million were doing Pilates (ASD 2003b). New participants are attracted partly by savvy marketing but also by the lure of programs that might offer them peace of mind as well as fitness gains.

In the midst of all this growth and excitement, is it clear what mind-body exercise really is? We think that it includes yoga and tai chi, but not weight training or swimming. Are we justified in making that distinction?

A Little History

The term mind-body exercise comes to the fitness industry from the field of mind-body medicine. According to the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, mind-body medicine is based on the "inseparable connection between the mind and body--the complicated interactions that take place between thoughts, body and the outside world."

Today's strong focus on mind-body medicine had its beginnings as early as the 1940s and 1950s, when Hans Selye, MD, popularized the concept of stress and the "fight or flight" response in modern medicine. The field has evolved steadily since the early 1970s, which saw the emergence of body therapies, along with pioneering studies on the psychological impacts of exercise. That same decade, Herbert Benson, MD, from Harvard University, coined the term relaxation response to describe how changes in states of mind could effect changes in the body. Benson's research documenting the relaxation response was based on studies of people who engaged in transcendental meditation. His findings provided research-based evidence that mental changes resulting from meditation could bring about beneficial physiological changes.

Since then, medical evidence for the support of mind-body medicine, which includes mindful exercise techniques, has been growing. Research has shown that mind-body practices can benefit both the nervous system and the immune system by restoring balance after the stress response has been aroused. People with borderline hypertension, in particular, have experienced remarkable benefits from engaging in mindful techniques and, in some cases, have even been able to discontinue drug therapy.

When such techniques involve physical movement--as is the case with yoga and tai chi--researchers find that participants also experience improvements in physical conditioning,...

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