We’ve all been there – plodding through some exercise while our mind is elsewhere. Maybe it's on the treadmill or stationary bike while watching TV. Maybe it's just going through the motions lifting weights while chatting with friends on your phone. But are we missing something by not being present?
Mindfulness is about being actively aware – in the present moment with the body, and without judgement. Mindfulness in exercise is nothing new - yoga and tai chi are mindful practises. All you need to do is focus on the body – how it feels, how it moves and how it breathes. There’s no thinking, just being in flow and in the moment.
So how does being mindful during exercise help?
Yep, pretty obvious. Meditation reduces stress and triggers feel good hormones like dopamine, serotonin and GABA, while also improving health. It calms brain activity from an erratic jumble of signals to strong and steady waves. It not only reduces stress (and the stress hormone cortisol), it also makes us more resilient to future stressors. (Read more on the science behind meditation)
Think about when you’re learning a physical skill – you have to pay close attention to what you’re doing and you quickly pick up how your body should move. The more you practise and pay attention, the better you get. That’s because your mind is continually improving at carrying out the task. The more you pay attention, the more you see how you can improve. With each step while running or each rep lifting – be mindful. Is my breathing right? Is my posture and balance correct? Are the necessary muscles firing while the unnecessary muscles are relaxed? You can even try closing your eyes and doing the same exercise to heighten the effect. Remember it’s a process and there is no end point of perfection – even elite athletes are continually improving their performance.
This meditative focus is also what allows us to access the flow state, or to get into “the zone”, which greatly improves performance and enjoyment. Once you learn to access the flow state via exercise, you can apply the same technique to other aspects of your life.
When you start strength training, the greatest strength increase does not come from muscle growth. Instead it comes from strengthening the neural pathways between the brain and the muscles. An increase in the signal strength from the brain increases the number of muscle fibres that are recruited in the movement, resulting in greater strength. You’ve all heard those stories of how a mother lifted a car of her child when it was crushed underneath? That’s because her nervous system was firing at full capacity, resulting in incredible strength. Arnold Schwarzenegger said the same thing - "Put your mind into your muscles…The weights are just a means to an end; how well you contract the muscles is what training is all about." Arnie knew a thing or two about strength training.
I admit, I haven’t found scientific research to back this one up (does anyone want to run a study?). What I do have is my own results, and those of my clients. My theory is that being mindful of the exercise and it's aftereffects increases the body’s hormonal response. When you pay attention, the experience is stronger and more significant in the mind and the body, and so it's adaptive response is stronger.
My clients have reported they have greater increases in strength and improve form faster after learning how to apply mindfulness to exercise. Try it for yourself and see. Pick an exercise - lift some weights, or do some sprints or lunges. Whatever, as long as it’s intense. When your muscles are exhausted, stop and close your eyes. Listen to your body. Feel your heart racing. Feel the muscles burning. Breathe into it. Feel the heat that is generated in the body, feel the energy that is raised. Integrate. Do you feel like you got more benefit out the exercise than if you just went and played with your phone instead? This is the concept behind relaxing in savasana, or corpse pose, at the end of a yoga class – you will get more out of the practise if you give yourself time to integrate the effects.
And lastly – if you don’t enjoy the exercise enough to be mindful of what you’re doing, why are you doing it? Find something you actually enjoy and go do that!