Head-to-Toe Fitness : Stress-Releasing Mental Exercise Is the Newest Way to Work Out

AN HOUR OF advanced aerobics a day is no longer enough. The newest trend in fitness is exercise with benefits that extend beyond the body. Experts say that after more than a decade of fascination with the physique, Americans are expanding their fitness goals to include mental well-being. These specialists add that relaxation and deep-breathing drills soon will be as essential to daily workouts as aerobics and strength training.

The goal of these mental activities is the reduction of stress, which has become a health-threatening problem for many who are now seeking ways to work relaxation into daily activity. “In the same way that people had to join a class or hire a trainer to get activity into their day, they are now making appointments for relaxation,” says Douglas Brooks, a West Los Angeles-based exercise physiologist and personal trainer. “In the same way that we had to learn to exercise, we have to learn to relax.”

Exercisers may pay $45 for a 40-minute session with the Genesis stress-reduction system, which couples biofeedback with music. One such system was recently installed at the Excelsior Club, an upscale Manhattan gym. Others practice traditional tension relievers such as yoga or martial arts. And some now walk or hike for an aerobic workout during which mental techniques can be practiced.

Some aerobics teachers now build relaxation breaks into classes, says Kathie Davis, executive director of San Diego-based Idea, the Assn. for Fitness Professionals. “People now depend on instructors to provide both the physical and mental parts of the fitness program,” Davis says, noting that more instructors are teaching visualization and imagery techniques in their classes. These involve using mental pictures to release stress and to foster a positive self-image.


For several years, strenuous exercise was touted as a way to reduce stress. But for many, working out has become yet another source of tension. “The time pressure of getting to class, the compulsive manner in which the exercise is performed and the competitive nature of the participants can add more stress,” says Dr. Anthony Reading, an associate clinical professor at the UCLA School of Medicine and a specialist in stress reduction.

Margaret Pierpont, senior fitness editor of Self magazine--which, in its March issue, cites the mind-body connection as a trend for the ‘90s--says: “When people hear the words mind-body connection , they immediately think of yoga. But any exercise that allows you to focus, to change your thought process, to clear your head--that’s the key.”

Reading adds: “Studies show that exercise alone doesn’t automatically lead to a positive mental state.”

Yoga instructor Larry Payne, of the Samata center in Marina del Rey, specializes in individualized programs intended to treat stress. “Mind-body relaxation techniques are not difficult, but they take some practice. The stress-reduction benefits show up quickly,” says Payne, who has taught Dolly Parton and Ted Danson.


Brooks, who does not teach stress-reduction techniques, says about half of his aerobic- and weight-training clients engage in some form of relaxation exercise. “I have never heard of anyone who tried it and didn’t like it. We need to define it as having worth. It is the future.”