Not now. While you’re exercising. Pay attention to how you’re feeling, in a nonjudgmental way, and you may derive greater satisfaction from your circuit training or spinning classes.
“Mindfulness can help you develop a fitness mindset for a healthier life,” says Dr. Shilagh Mirgain, a sport psychologist for UW Health Sports Medicine. “Instead of thinking, ‘Exercise isn’t for me’ or “I’m going to be miserable,’ mindfulness allows you to focus in on how your body likes to move. It gets you out of your head and builds an awareness of how your body wants to express itself.”
Dr. Mirgain’s assertions are confirmed by a study recently published in the Journal of Health Psychology that suggests people feel better about exercise when approaching it mindfully.
A group of researchers at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and other institutions asked 400 physically-active adults to answer a series of questions about their exercise and mindfulness habits. The study concluded those who incorporated mindfulness into their exercise regimens were more satisfied with their routines, and satisfied exercisers tend to exercise more frequently.
Mindfulness can be a difficult concept to grasp, and its definition is sometimes stretched to suit myriad purposes. But Dr. Mirgain is talking about “paying attention to the present moment in a way that notices thoughts, sensations or feelings in a way that’s nonjudgmental, with self-compassion.”
UW Health Mindfulness program manager Bob Gillespie adds, “Mindfulness is an experience and a way of being, systematically developed through contemplative practices such as meditation and yoga. Training ourselves to be present, open, and aware to what is going on inside us and around us through mindfulness practice can then lead to a range of benefits that go far beyond the practices themselves.”
If you’re churning out three miles on the treadmill, then, take a moment to notice the thrum of your pulse and the air moving in and out of your lungs. If you’re working through a set of bench presses, note the strain of the weight against your pectorals and the relief of exhaling as you complete the last rep. Whatever you’re feeling, pay attention to it, because you may find yourself enjoying the activity more fully.
University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority
“A mindfulness practice has been found to predict well-being and enhance positive emotion,” Dr. Mirgain says. “Instead of engaging in mental chatter and focusing on what we don’t like, we start to notice the bare sensations, the feeling of movement and blood flow and heat.”
What is it about mindfulness that transforms a workout from dismal to blissful (or at the very least tolerable)? Mindfulness isn’t “medicine” in the traditional sense of the word, and the cause-effect relationship may not be as obvious. But, as the Dutch researchers recently demonstrated and numerous previous studies confirm, the mind thrives when focused, and that thriving can expand to the entire self.
“When we’re not paying attention, we’re less happy. If we’re in the moment, we’re happier,” Dr. Mirgain says. “When we’re fully absorbed, we experience things deeply and we’re more likely to remember them.”
Dr. Mirgain also believes that mindfulness can interrupt the negative thought processes that convince people to skip exercising.
“I see people who lack motivation to exercise,” she says. “It’s cold out. You feel sedentary. You can convince yourself you don’t want to go to the gym and, even when you’re there, you may think you’re not doing very well. Those are mental barriers.”
By taking note of those barriers, however, people can acknowledge them without succumbing to them, and then move past them to make a different choice.
“Mindfulness allows you to notice those thoughts without being ruled by them,” Dr. Mirgain says. “You can notice the self-doubt, that inner saboteur, and it allows you to unhook from that line of thinking and drop into your body. You notice the thoughts and see that they’re temporary. The thought passes, the sensations change, and you enter more fully into the moment connecting with your body in motion.”
Mindfulness may even help you cultivate an entirely new conception of what exercise should be, says Dr. Mirgain.
“People can get stuck with the idea of what exercise has to look like or feel like,” she says. “They think you have to go to the gym and lift a ton of weight or do intense cardio. That limited perception can cause you to give up.”
A mindful consideration of exercise, however, can liberate you from that rather narrow conception.
“You can experiment and explore your options to become more active,” Dr. Mirgain says. “It involves changing your perception of what exercise should look like and frees you to find an approach that works for you.”
“I think a key part of how mindfulness can help with an exercise routine is acknowledging the reality that we will drift away from our exercise routine just the way our attention will drift away from the focus on our breath during meditation,” Gillespie says. “By viewing exercise as a mindfulness practice, we realistically expect that we will drift from the exercise practice and miss some workouts. The key part of mindfulness practice is noticing when we drift from our intention with an attitude of nonjudgment and then returning over and over again to our intention. In meditation, this is letting go of inevitable distractions and consistently returning to the breath. In exercise, it’s letting go of any self-judgment for not maintaining our exercise routine and coming back again and again to our sincere intention to exercise regularly. This intention to pay attention with nonjudgment can be transferred to many daily activities in our life.”