“Take care of your body, it’s the only place you have to live.”
– Jim Rohn
Mindfulness and physical fitness are mutually reinforcing concepts. In other words, mindfulness encourages physical fitness, because one who is mindful tends to focus on optimal health and wellness; while being physically fit necessarily requires mindful awareness of your body and the types of movement and nutrition that allow for physical strength and health.
The symbiotic relationship between mindfulness and physical fitness is well-documented with a bevy of academic research. Sports psychologists and behavioral coaches routinely insist that most physical performance is rooted in a mental game, which requires an awareness of your thought patterns. Experts in mindfulness and positive psychology analogize mindfulness as a way of training the mind, similar to how physical exercise trains the body. The overwhelming conclusion behind studies across disciplines is “what the mind believes, the body will achieve.”
When we extend the metaphor to consider how mindfulness relates to physical fitness, it makes intuitive sense to conclude that having a good attitude about exercise, staying in tune with the present moment, and drawing attention to how physical exertion challenges and grows your mental resolve will, most likely, enhance your experience and incentivize you to build daily activity into your routine. Might it be possible, then, to incorporate mindfulness and meditative practices as a way of advancing our exercise programming and empowering us to plan and execute well-balanced nutrition plans?
This post answers the question: “What does it mean to be mindfully fit?” Specifically, it defines mindfulness and offers five strategies for incorporating mindful practices into your day-to-day exercise regimen.
Mindfully Fit: Making Exercise an Embodied Experience
Mindfulness is the attentive awareness of your present reality – thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations in relationship to the current context you find yourself in.
Practicing mindfulness can be as simple as noticing how a light gust of wind on your skin elicits a burst of chills on your neck; or appreciating the beauty of a sunrise and reflecting on the possibilities that a new day brings; or it could be stopping to be aware of how a certain trigger or stressful event or movement impulsively creates a thought, changes your breathing patterns, or perhaps even causes sweat to drip from your brow. Mindfulness encourages individual actions to be intentional and conscientious, by teaching practitioners to take time for themselves in what can often be perceived as a hectic, chaotic world.
Using mindfulness to enhance your physical and emotional fitness and resilience has been proven scientifically effective in training the pre-frontal cortex, which calms the mind while keeping it alert, focused, and ready to perform at optimal levels while avoiding distraction. Studies have posited that introspective awareness can improve brain-body connection and help individuals perceive external and internal changes to their environment. Better yet? By practicing mindfulness, we are actively strengthening our brains perceptive and adaptive capability. Said differently, the more we practice – the more aware and stronger we become.
Therefore, if we try to view exercise an embodied experience, where we use mindful, meditative strategies to enhance our experience, make exercise more enjoyable, and find a way to cultivate gratitude for whatever mobility we have currently – we are likely to cultivate a sensibility toward body positivity, optimal health and wellness, while achieving our physical fitness goals.
How Do I Get Started?
Meditation has a blurred and skewed reputations in some circles. It tends to be something “new-agey hippies” do. But, the reality is that most of us meditate in our own ways already.
Meditation is the physical, mental, and spiritual practice involving slowing your thoughts down by introspectively turning inward and becoming mindfully aware of your breath in order to relax the body and soothe the soul. It takes many forms: some people prefer to sit comfortably on pillows and cushions while repeating a mantra, others meditate by counting their steps while running.
On that note, here are some ways to get your meditative practice started and suggestions for how to incorporate mindfulness strategies into your exercise programming.
I became formally introduced to meditation following a divorce. My life as I knew it had flipped upside down and the thoughts I had about what I could have done to change things, or worries about what the future might hold became convoluted and too stressful for me to neglect or dismiss.
I started meditation using an IoS application called Headspace – it offers a free introductory series called “Take 10” featuring ten guided ten minute meditations that progress in depth and complexity as you make your way through them. It is a very user-friendly medium and offers clear instructions for users. I thoroughly recommend it to anyone who is looking for a basic foundation in guided meditation.
My meditation has evolved to include daily journaling and finding new ways to silence my mind and focus on my body and its response to physical exertion. My meditation happens on a yoga mat in a 90 degree room. Not all meditation is the same for each person. Meditation can be as simple as taking five minutes out of your day to stop, be aware of how you feel in that exact moment, scan your body for signs of ailment, stress, or weakness, while offering gratitude and praise to yourself for taking a minute to attend to your needs.
Now that you understand more about meditation and have a method to begin your own meditative practice, I’ll discuss four strategies for incorporating these practices into your day-to-day exercise programming.
1. Set an intention.
When you wake up, set an intention for your day. Before you workout, set an intention for your training session. Doing so will add purpose and conviction to your actions and will instinctively train your mind to look for the benefits of performing challenging tasks. When I train clients, I always say: “set an intention for this workout and your day – maybe it’s to be 1% better than you were yesterday; or maybe you want to have more fun, wag more and bark less. Whatever your intention is, keep it in the forefront of your imagination, always. For it will help you when times are tough.”
When I say ‘set an intention,’ I mean to ask you to answer the question, “what is my goal and why is it important to me?” In the context of physical fitness, you may take time to think about the health benefits exercise brings, or the changes in quality of sleep patterns, or improvement in mood. You may think of your children and how you want to be around for them long into their adult lives. Whatever the case may be, setting an intention is taking a minute to remind yourself why it is important to get up with a smile everyday, practice mindful eating habits, and move your body in new and profound ways.
I set my intention(s) for the day right when I wake up. I have a journal next to my bed, so that when I wake up the first thing I consider is what my purpose or motivation for the day will be. I try take time to wake up my spine with cat and cow poses, thinking about how well I slept, if I have any aches or soreness, focus on my breathing, sending positive energy to the parts of my body that need it. All the while I think, why today? What good can I put into the world or into myself that will leave me fulfilled and at peace?
I set my intentions for my workout during my dynamic warm-up. Each workout should begin with movement exercises to promote blood flow and wake up the muscles and tissues throughout your body. These tend to emphasize getting the body warmed up and prepared for the strain of exercise. I view my dynamic warm-up as the time to scan my body for signs of soreness or weakness, thank myself for showing up, praise my body for what it can do, and set my intention for the exercise I’m about to engage in. In some ways, this practice is akin to a physical warm-up because it is preparing the mind for action.
In the process, I firmly believe setting an intention before every workout has helped me realize the importance of a health-focus, and allowed me to aspire to and conquer a host of new physical goals, while encouraging me to practice gratitude for the new stresses and strains my body can endure. Set an intention. It works.
2. Focus on a mantra or series of inspirational texts.
Finding a mantra, or a go to inspirational text can be helpful to motivate a mindfully fit perspective. When times get tough, you can focus on a word, image, or phrase that calms, inspires, and/or motivates you. Focusing on the repetition of your mantra can distract you from the clouded thoughts of self-doubt, physical pain, and excuses which prevent you from achieving your goal. It can help you focus on the temporal nature of feelings and sensations, and offer a higher purpose for your exercise.
“Even the mightiest oak will be uprooted by the storm, but the blade of grass will bend in the wind and wait for the next moment of sunshine.”
This is my mantra. When I get stressed or strained to the point of physical or emotional exertion, I silently repeat “Bend in the wind. Be like the grass.” When I do, I can literally feel my blood pressure and heart beat stabilize and calm a bit. It reminds me of my character, force of will, and determination to withstand the toughest challenge by being flexible, creative and inventive.
For a list of intriguing motivational mantras for 2017, click here
3. Check your ego at the door.
Love where you are at right now and praise yourself for starting this journey. Our expectations of who we should be, comparisons to who we used to be, and ego-driven thinking that we must look or act a certain way to fit societal standards of beauty and physical fitness cloud our thinking and produce injuries. I cannot tell you how many injuries I’ve seen because someone was performing an exercise far outside of their physical capability.
Whether it’s insisting on jogging, even though you have really bad knees, attempting an overhead press with heavy weights after a shoulder replacement, or hiding a hernia from your trainer so you can lift weights you’re not supposed to. This is generally a practice I frown upon.
The reality is, you are exactly where you are right now. Rather than attempting to muster the strength or flexibility you used to have, embrace a humble new beginning and slowly progress to that level. I suggest seeking professional help from a certified expert or studying up on human biomechanics and the best practices of exercise physiology.
There are always things to learn about the body and the best practices for exercise and nutrition. Mindfulness requires an awareness of your physical limitations and a desire to learn how to maximize activity within those limitations.
4. Focus! Be present and attentive to your breath.
All too often I see people trying to rush through an exercise as quickly as possible to get it done and over with. The reality is, this line of thinking virtually guarantees minimal benefit and a discomforting experience with exercise.
Rather than taking that approach, allow yourself to consider how you might be getting stronger with each repetition, how each step in your run is helping blood pump through your body more freely and clearing up your respiratory system, or even think about how the shape of your body and how your clothes fit differently with each day of healthy living.
Regardless of what you focus on – when you’re exercising, you are doing so for you, not for your children, spouse, or your trainer. It is important to clear your mind of obligations you have, sources of stress in your life, and become aware of the benefits you are affording to yourself by carving out a short time each day to focus on your own self-care.
In the process, you’ll want to focus on your breath work. When I’m training, I instruct folks to focus on breathing in and exhaling with intention. It could be in for 2 counts, and out for 4 counts and then may progress to inhaling for 3 counts and exhaling out for 6 counts. There is a reason why this practice is taught in Lemaz classes across the country. Focusing on your breath will soothe your heart rate and lower your blood pressure – thus allowing improved recovery and enhanced performance.
This may sound silly to some, but when you’re exhaling, try to send positive energy to the part of your body that feels week or in-pain. This technique will obviously lack effectiveness in terms of coping with real physical injury, but is likely to help acute strains from exercise.
To be mindfully fit is to practice a thoughtful awareness of your mental, emotional, and physical state in a given moment, while challenging yourself to re-frame those negative, self-limiting beliefs that no longer serve you into positive, life-affirming beliefs that leave you empowered. I am now one of several authors advocating the incorporation of mindfulness strategies into any physical exercise program. I hope you were able to identify a strategy or two that resonated with you and want to wish you the best of luck practicing mindful fitness in 2017.