What is mindful exercise and why is it important?
The term ‘mindfulness’ is all around us these days, and there’s a huge emphasis on the importance of doing things ‘mindfully’ – but what does this mean?
When it comes to exercise, psychologist Dr. Aria defines mindful exercise as “letting go of unwanted thoughts and distractions, and instead, directing your attention to your physical sensations, breathing and body movements.”1
What are the benefits of exercising mindfully?
Being mindful while exercising can result in a more effective movement workout, with less chance of injury and a more positive experience in how you perceive your body and what it can do. By focusing on what your body is doing and how it feels, you will have a greater mind-muscle connection, enabling you to tap into your greater potential – studies have shown that simply focusing on the muscle you are activating can lead to faster and more effective results.2
Mindful running can help to boost the mental health benefits of physical exercise and the very nature of running – the repetition of continually placing one foot in front of the other – naturally lends itself as a form of meditation as you become attuned to your breathing and the way your body moves. Studies have shown that focusing on how it feels as you run, being in tune with your body, and disconnecting from your daily distractions can lead to a greater running performance.3
We all breathe, all the time, but it comes so naturally that we might not actually think about how we breathe. Focusing on how you breathe can really help when exercising though. You can use your breath to aid your performance and you don’t even have to wait until your start exercising – try taking some deep breaths before your workout to calm your mind and prepare you for the task ahead. While exercising, start slowly and pay attention to how you breathing responds. Notice whether your breathing is becoming more shallow or deeper and consider how your body responds to different intensities.
The same principles that apply to mindful running can be applied to mindful walking and a mindful walk can have just as many health benefits, with studies showing that looking at or being in nature can have a rejuvenating effect on the brain.4 While moving, your attention is focused on the act of doing and the sensations that your body is experiencing. It can prevent the mind from having distracting and stressful thoughts, instead focusing your attention on the present moment and helping keep more of a healthy mental state. Being distracted is normal though so if you start to struggle, don’t be too hard on yourself. Allow these distracting thoughts to enter your mind, but then gently let them go and try to calmly bring yourself back to the present moment.
6 ways to have a mindful workout
Exercising is sometimes used as a way of ‘zoning out’ of our current environment, but mindful exercise involves doing the opposite – instead of letting our minds wander, drawing them back to the physical activity we are taking part in, paying attention to what is happening to our body and how our body, mind and breath are all connected.
- Take in your surroundings – whether you are indoors or outdoors, really look at what is around you, the sights, smells and sounds.
- Listen to your body and notice how you’re feeling – rather than try to distract yourself when you start to feel tired, pay attention to your breathing, thirst and body and focus on keeping good form and staying hydrated.
- Set your intention – set a goal of what you want to achieve from your workout and stay focused on that goal.
- Notice self-defeating thoughts – rather than think ‘this is too hard’ try to think empowering thoughts, like ‘this is hard, but I can do it.’
- Acknowledge your achievement – reflect on how far you have come, and don’t compare yourself to others. It doesn’t matter if someone walks/runs/swims further or faster, it’s all about what you achieved today, that you didn’t achieve yesterday.
- Focus on the muscles you’re stretching – what you do after your workout is as important as what you do during it. Don’t get distracted while stretching but focus on how your muscles feel.
Whether you are new to exercise or enjoy it regularly, doing so mindfully can really help to elevate your performance and benefit your physiological health. The next time you do a workout, try following the 6 steps above and consider the difference they make both physically, and mentally.