Choosing 'Mindfulness' Over Physical Exercise Hurts Our Head

shutterstock_389252212 Sleep meditation via Shutterstock

An increasingly popular trend is offering individuals, shall we say, a different kind of fitness experience. Rather than working up a sweat, participants instead are provided a reprieve from daily stress. And instead of elliptical machines and free-weights, folks are curling into hammocks, pouring themselves into meditation pods and other cushy confines.

Touted as a mix of mindfulness and introspection, these new "classes" are designed as an opportunity for members to re-focus and re-center in a place where they already find comfort. But when a class encourages relaxation to the point where it puts participants to sleep, one can't help but be a bit skeptical.

Is it exercise, meditation, or designed to be a combination of the two?

Antigravity Cocooning, recently launched by the fitness operator Crunch in New York City, is an activity that “puts members in sling-style hammocks that hang from the ceiling,” according to the Wall Street Journal. The class, which “consists of 20 minutes of stretches and abdominal exercises, followed by 15 minutes of guided relaxation” promises to leave participants completely rejuvenated and with a restored sense of alertness. Apparently billed as an exercise-meditation hybrid, it's reportedly soon to be offered in Miami, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The appeal of this type of offering isn't completely surprising, given that Americans claim that they are under more stress than ever before. (But remember, this metric isn't purely reliable or scientific, as it's based on self-reported data.)

On a 10-point scale, the average stress level for Americans increased slightly to 5.1 in last year, from 4.9 in 2014, according to the American Psychological Association. Further, the APA claims that 24 percent of Americans reported experiencing “extreme” stress in 2015 — a 6 percent hike from the previous year.

But while the National Institutes of Health provides some support that mindfulness mediation helps those with Generalized Anxiety Disorder — concluding that it "may have a beneficial effect on anxiety symptoms in GAD, and may also improve stress reactivity and coping as measured in a laboratory stress challenge — the question remains: Are fitness centers really the best place for this? The answer is, probably not.

The WSJ added that, "People become so relaxed that a few have fallen asleep in the class," according to Crunch's senior vice president for programming, Donna Cyrus.

As if that's a good thing.

What's more, it's likely that the 20 minutes of stretching and abdominal specific activity in antigravity cocooning is hardly aerobically effective enough to induce health benefits. This means that if gym-goers start swapping exercise for cocooning, hammocks and mediation pods, they will deny themselves the anxiety-reducing benefits that go along with being active.

Furthering that point, exercise, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, is “considered vital for maintaining mental fitness," and "studies show that it is effective at reducing fatigue, improving alertness and concentration and at enhancing overall cognitive function.”

So while this exercise-meditation hybrid, in the form of cocooning, may be gaining popularity, that doesn't make it effective. We'd recommend an activity be an extension of physical exertion — not something that replaces it altogether.