Improve Obese Individuals’ Ability to Respond Adaptively to Stressors with Mindfulness

Improve Obese Individuals’ Ability to Respond Adaptively to Stressors with Mindfulness


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“patients with obesity do better at reducing stress with mindfulness exercises.” – Sharon Basaraba


Obesity has become an epidemic in the industrialized world. In the U.S. the incidence of obesity, defined as a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or above has more than doubled over the last 35 years to currently around 35% of the population, while two thirds of the population are considered overweight or obese (BMI > 25). Obesity has been found to shorten life expectancy by eight years and extreme obesity by 14 years. This occurs because obesity is associated with cardiovascular problems such as coronary heart disease and hypertension, stroke, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, and others.


Obviously, there is a need for effective treatments to obese individuals. But, despite copious research and a myriad of dietary and exercise programs, there still is no safe and effective treatment. Mindfulness is known to be associated with lower risk for obesityalter eating behavior and improve health in obesity. Stress responses are blunted and variable in obese individuals. Mindfulness training has been shown to improve the individuals physiological and psychological responses to stress. One of the ways that mindfulness may be effective for obese individuals is by improving their adaptive responses to stress.


In today’s Research News article “A Randomized Controlled Trial of a Mindfulness-Based Weight Loss Intervention on Cardiovascular Reactivity to Social-Evaluative Threat Among Adults with Obesity.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: ) Daubenmeir and colleagues recruited adults with abdominal obesity (BMI>30) and provided them with a 12-week program of diet and exercise. Half were randomly assigned to also receive mindfulness training similar to the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. In previously reported results, the mindfulness training produced greater improvements in metabolism but non-significant improvements in body weight.


In the present study they report the results of studies of the obese participants stress responsivity. They were measured before and after the 12-week diet and exercise training with a social stress test that involved giving a speech and verbally doing math problems while being evaluated by strangers. In addition, cardiovascular factors were measured including the electrocardiogram (EKG), blood pressure and cardiac impedance.


They found that in comparison to baseline and the control condition, the mindfulness trained participants reported that the social stress tasks was a significantly greater positive challenge and produced significantly less anxiety. They also found that the mindfulness group had significantly greater cardiac output and significantly lower total peripheral resistance while the control group had a significant increase in total peripheral resistance.


These results suggest that mindfulness training increases the obese individual’s ability to adapt psychologically and physiologically to stress. That mindfulness reduces anxiety and improves adaptation to stress has been previously reported using different evaluation techniques and different participant populations. The present study extends these findings by demonstrating that mindfulness has similar benefits for the obese. Since stress reactivity can be a particular problem for the obese, the improved adaptive responses to stress after mindfulness training may be especially helpful for these individuals.


So, improve obese individuals’ ability to respond adaptively to stressors with mindfulness.


restricted diets may in fact increase anxiety in obese children. However, practicing mindfulness, as well dieting, may counteract this and promote more efficient weight loss,” – Mardia López-Alarcón


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ and on Twitter @MindfulResearch


Study Summary


Daubenmier, J., Epel, E. S., Moran, P. J., Thompson, J., Mason, A. E., Acree, M., Goldman, V., Kristeller, J., Hecht, F. M., & Mendes, W. B. (2019). A Randomized Controlled Trial of a Mindfulness-Based Weight Loss Intervention on Cardiovascular Reactivity to Social-Evaluative Threat Among Adults with Obesity. Mindfulness, 10(12), 2583–2595.



Mindfulness-based interventions have been found to reduce psychological and physiological stress reactivity. In obesity, however, stress reactivity is complex, with studies showing both exaggerated and blunted physiological responses to stressors. A nuanced view of stress reactivity is the “challenge and threat” framework, which defines adaptive and maladaptive patterns of psychophysiological stress reactivity. We hypothesized that mindfulness training would facilitate increased challenge-related appraisals, emotions, and cardiovascular reactivity, including sympathetic nervous system activation paired with increased cardiac output (CO) and reduced total peripheral resistance (TPR) compared to a control group, which would exhibit an increased threat pattern of psychophysiological reactivity to repeated stressors.


Adults (N=194) with obesity were randomized to a 5.5-month mindfulness-based weight loss intervention or an active control condition with identical diet-exercise guidelines. Participants were assessed at baseline and 4.5 months later using the Trier Social Stress Task. Electrocardiogram, impedance cardiography, and blood pressure were acquired at rest and during the speech and verbal arithmetic tasks to assess pre-ejection period (PEP), CO, and TPR reactivity.


Mindfulness participants showed significantly greater maintenance of challenge-related emotions and cardiovascular reactivity patterns (higher CO and lower TPR) from pre to post-intervention compared to control participants, but groups did not differ in PEP. Findings were independent of changes in body mass index.


Mindfulness training may increase the ability to maintain a positive outlook and mount adaptive cardiovascular responses to repeated stressors among persons with obesity though findings need to be replicated in other populations and using other forms of mindfulness interventions.


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