Self-compassion improves physical activity in individuals with multiple sclerosis

Research affirms mind and body connectedness

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Having self-compassion – simply being kind to yourself – can help motivate individuals with multiple sclerosis (MS) and promote healthy behaviors such as physical activity.

Doctoral student Mara Nery-Hurwit recently defended her dissertation research on this topic and is eager to continue work in this area. Mara’s dissertation was accepted, and she successfully earned her Ph.D. in Movement Studies in Disability.

Mara became interested in exploring how self-compassion could benefit individuals with MS through her work in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences’ MS Exercise Program and Individualized Movement and Physical Activity for Children Today (IMPACT) program. She plans to continue doing this kind of work and applying strategies to other populations, including parents of children with disabilities.

During her first year in the program, Mara participated in an intervention on promoting physical activity in individuals with MS. The focus group interviews found that whether or not individuals with MS understood self-compassion or not, they were talking about it. “Some would say things like ‘I learn to be more self-compassionate toward myself on days I’m feeling really bad. Others would beat themselves up because of a later onset disability where they would look back and say, ‘These are things I could do and I can’t do those things now,’” Mara says.

The focus groups also revealed that some people genuinely understood self-compassion and others did not. Mara says that self-compassion can be taught, that it’s something that changes and that people can learn to be more self-compassionate.

Mara’s research tested a model on how self-compassion improved physical activity behaviors.

“We found that self-compassion is positively linked to physical activity and predicts engagement with physical activity through improving an individual’s self-determined motivation,” Mara says.

“As we proceed with creating interventions to help individuals cultivate self-compassion and help them engage with adapted physical activity or other physical activity for other populations, self-compassion is a tool that can help improve motivation. It helps people change the narrative of how they perceive their abilities.”

Mara’s interest in self-compassion topics is not limited to her academic research. She also teaches yoga and is a wellness coach. In her yoga teaching, she infuses self-compassion into her classes. In her coaching, she has spoken to various groups about different health behaviors.

“I would like to see adapted physical education programs created that weave in components that teach people to have a kinder self-narrative,” she says. “Being mindful of their situation, having a good perspective and remembering that they’re not isolated in their experiences are all vital components. I think that when groups of individuals come together, like they do in the MS Exercise Program and IMPACT program, a social support around exercise is built, which is so important.”

Mara also holds a Master of Public Health degree in Health Promotion and Health Behavior from the CPHHS. She’s enjoyed her time in the college and takes many fond memories as she continues her career. She recently moved to Tacoma, Wash., to begin a visiting assistant professor position in the Kinesiology Department at Pacific Lutheran University.

“I had such a good experience with the faculty and the other students in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences,” Mara says. “Everyone is dedicated and committed to learning, experiencing public health and to community service, which I love. I think it’s great that we’re creating programs that serve the community. Everyone was so accessible, and faculty were always there to listen, support ideas and give advice.”