Developing Positive Fitness

As featured in IDEA Fitness Journal Article, “The Happiness Factor, Part II” by: Mary Monroe

“Elaine O’Brien, MAPP, one of IDEA’s very first members and a group fitness instructor and presenter, is a graduate student at Temple University in Philadelphia, studying the psychology of human movement. A University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Leader, she presented “Physical Activity, Leadership, and Thriving” at the first International Positive Psychology Conference in China and at Tsinghua University, Beijing.

“As the science of positive psychology comes to the forefront, group instructors, coaches, educators and personal trainers have an exciting challenge,” she says. “We can encourage people not just to move well, but to move with engagement, meaning and joy through their life span. Through movement, we have an incredible opportunity to foster thriving individuals and communities.”

O’Brien is creating interventions for fitness professionals that link physical activity and positive psychology, and she will explore the topic as a presenter at the upcoming Inner IDEA® conference. “We have such an opportunity to merge these fields and explore appreciative movement, sustainability and exercise practices that promote flourishing individuals, groups and communities in the world.”

O’Brien created the unique “Joyful Blessings Day: International Gratitude Experiences,” an example of how fitness professionals can integrate positive psychology elements into a fitness experience. “We asked high-school students to participate with seniors and used a theme of gratitude to bring everyone together.”

The day began with group exercise to music that had joy and gratitude as themes—songs like “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” by Stevie Wonder and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” by the Beach Boys. Lunch followed with a Native American prayer of gratitude, and the idea of savoring positive emotions was introduced. Students and seniors were encouraged to ask each other questions like these:

1. What have you been most grateful for earlier in your life?
2. What makes you happy?
3. What are you most grateful for today? Can you help somebody else have a similar experience?
4. What has been a high-point moment today? How can you create more moments like that?

These exchanges were followed by a contemplative parable of gratitude about an Asian woman named Haikun: Every morning Haikun walked a mile to the spring to gather a bucket of water for her family. At the end of the day, she walked back to the spring and returned any leftover water, in gratitude. The day concluded with a “Breath of Thanks” exercise from the book Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier by Robert A. Emmons (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2007). The exercise invites people to bring attention to their breathing and, for five to eight breaths, to say, “Thank you,” silently.

“Gratitude is one of the most powerful interventions for well-being,” says O’Brien. “You can do simple things, such as encourage your students to write a letter of thanks to someone important in their lives.” In addition to gratitude, O’Brien offers these strategies for fostering happiness and well-being in your clients:

Character strength building. En­­­cour­­­age clients to identify their strengths and use them. For more information, see Character Strengths and Virtues by Christopher Peterson and Martin E.P. Seligman (Oxford 2004) and Authentic Happiness by Martin E.P. Seligman (Free Press 2002). Students can also take online tests at, in the Values and Action Inven-tory section, to identify strengths such as wisdom, courage, fairness, leadership, home, humor or spirituality. Encourage your students to use their strengths in new ways every day. It’s important that you know your own strengths, too.

Positive feedback. Acknowledge your clients’ strengths, such as their courage or perseverance. Keep in mind that how you respond to people is critical to their health. Ask questions about the positive things in their lives—help them relive and savor joyful moments.

Meaning-making. Create meaning for your clients by encouraging them to talk about what makes life meaningful for them; by creating meaning together, as a community, through food drives or charitable projects; and by acknowledging meaningful moments, such as anniversaries, graduations or other

Says O’Brien, “My goal is to have my students feel welcome and engaged, and leave class feeling great—and to greet and thank every student. I am aware of gratitude myself. I’m the luckiest person to do the work that I do. There’s such a negativity bias in the world in general. As fitness professionals, we have an opportunity to move toward the joy of life. As IDEA members, we can lead the way for people to thrive physically and mentally, by helping them make that connection between their minds, bodies and spirits. There are so many things we can do to thrive ourselves and to help our clients thrive. We just need to spend more time focusing on the things we can do to lift ourselves up.”

See the full article here!


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