Meditation, mindfulness and active recovery, welcome to the next fitness wave

Kevin Kwok likes to keep fit. He works out six times a week — each day dedicated to a different muscle group. He swims regularly, does crossfunctional training once a week and used to play rugby competitively in his native Australia.

Even when his days were long, he’d make time to go to the gym. But when he moved to Toronto in March to help Uber launch its new accessibility training service, Kwok had to work 15- to 18-hour days to get the program up and running. He still found time to hit the gym, but between his job and settling into a new city he began to burn out.

Kevin Kwok, right, demonstrates meditation techniques in a meditation pod at Mindset Brain Gym. Sean Finnell, CEO, led Kevin through a brief five minute meditation.
Kevin Kwok, right, demonstrates meditation techniques in a meditation pod at Mindset Brain Gym. Sean Finnell, CEO, led Kevin through a brief five minute meditation.  (RENE JOHNSTON/TORONTO STAR)

“I couldn’t focus,” he says. “I’d read a book and it took me four times as long (as normal) to get through a page.”

He happened on Yorkville’s Mindset Brain Gym, a studio dedicated to training the brain to meditate. The gym offers short instructor-led classes and personal pods for people who want to sneak a few minutes in for a quick refresh. Some classes use Muse, a headset that measures brainwaves and can tell when the mind is drifting, alerting the user to refocus on the meditation at hand. Kwok signed up in October, and loved the experience so much, he’s added it into his regular workout routine.

The fitness world may still be abuzz with the health benefits of CrossFit, SoulCycle and other high intensity training, but community spas, recovery cafés and Zen gyms are gaining ground as soothing the mind and body is poised to be the next big fitness trend.

In its annual survey of fitness professionals, CanFitPro found that active recovery has usurped high intensity workouts to become the second-most popular health routine of the coming year. Personal trainers also said it, alongside meditation and mindfulness training, would be the top activities they recommend to clients in 2019.

Active recovery can be anything from a light jog, tai chi, yoga or a meditation class, says Barb Pontes, author of the study and the certification manager at CanFitPro. “It allows the body to take a break — (but) not just by sitting on the couch,” she says. “We’ve seen HIIT (high intensity interval training) being in the top 10 for quite a while now, but it may be starting to run its life as a top trend. You can’t go 120 per cent all the time, and we’re seeing people (want) to be well and take care of themselves.”

Globally, the number of people who joined restorative classes jumped 16 per cent in 2017 according to the annual Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends. In response to the increasing demand, gyms across the country have added more meditation classes to their mix, says Pontes.

Dedicated meditation gyms have popped up in cities like London, New York and L.A. In Toronto, Mindset has added 100-plus new clients monthly since its July launch, says founder and CEO Sean Finnell. It joined the likes of Hoame, a 5,000-square-foot meditation studio at Adelaide St. and Spadina Ave. opened in August, and the Quiet Company, which opened its permanent home on King W., in June. Even high intensity training-focused companies are getting in on the action. At-home cycling giant Peloton, known for its pulse-pounding workouts, launched subscription yoga and meditation classes on Dec. 26.

And while recovery and meditation doesn’t build muscle or shed calories as effectively as traditional gym-fare, the mindfulness aspect still offers a number of health benefits (not least of which is providing the body time to recover from workouts).

The biggest benefit is in stress reduction. Current research from the University of McMaster’s kinesiology department is looking at how people of varying levels of fitness and mindfulness training recover from stressful situations. And while the findings haven’t been published yet, early results show that people who incorporate some level of physical activity or some level of meditation regain their calm quicker than those who do not, says associate professor Jennifer Heisz. But people who are both physically active and do some form of mindfulness training recover faster than everyone.

Importantly, the brain can be trained to be more mindful, she says. Brain scans have shown that over time, meditation lessens the way the amygdala — the part of the brain that reacts to stress — responds to stressors, she says. This supports other research, which have found that regular meditation helps change the way the mind responds to stimuli. For example, one 2012 study found that people who frequently meditate had more stability in the part of the brain that regulates spontaneous thought.

Indeed, since joining Mindset, Kwok has seen a dramatic improvement in his mental health. When he first began in October, the Muse headset alerted him that his mind was wandering more than 100 times in a short session. At his last visit, his mind didn’t wander once, he says. “I view it like how I go to the gym,” he says. “It’s training (my) brain to be fully present. I’m not as distracted reading, when I’m studying or even at the gym. I can focus in all other areas of my life.”