There's no shortage of information on the positive effects of mindfulness on the brain. Here's how you can add mindful practices into your fitness routine for added benefits.
I have addressed the idea of mindfulness and its role in fitness before. In the article "Mindfulness as a Fitness Motivator," I mentioned a scientific study on the associations of what is known as Dispositional Mindfulness with cardiovascular health, which concluded: "dispositional mindfulness is positively associated with cardiovascular health, with the associations particularly driven by smoking, body mass index, fasting glucose, and physical activity."
I also dug into a super cool scientific trial that examined the relationship between exercise consistency and mindfulness. According to the authors, “those who were successful at maintaining exercise tended to score higher on measures of mindfulness and acceptance... exercisers having greater mindfulness and acceptance are less reactive; responding with more balanced appraisals to threats to their exercise regimen which in turn promotes increased exercise maintenance.”
Another study of 62 women over six months found that those who applied mindfulness meditation practices to their daily or weekly routine had a much higher level of physical exercise and general movement, and a greater reduction in BMI, than those who didn’t employ mindfulness practices.
What is dispositional mindfulness?
The type of mindfulness that these studies looked at is generally referred to as dispositional mindfulness, and it can be summed up as a keen awareness of our thoughts and feelings in the very moment that they pop into our mind. It can also be defined as a thoughtful attunement to what is going on inside your mind and body. I like to think of it as a calm centeredness that keeps your focus on "medium alert" while still being fully present and in the moment.
I like to think of it as a calm centeredness that keeps your focus on 'medium alert' while still being fully present and in the moment.
The processing of emotional and physical sensations in this way can steer (purposefully or subconsciously) our responses and choices, which in turn can actually help us achieve goals like our ideal body weight, body fat percentage, one rep max, sprint distance, or whatever our fitness goal happens to be.
Combining mindfulness and exercise
In 2018, a Psychology in Sport paper addressed the idea that integrating mindfulness practices into daily movement may lead to greater mental health benefits. Participants’ momentary "negative affect" (stress, anxiety, depression) was found to be lower when moving (versus sitting) if they were more mindful than usual when performing that movement.
The researchers also found that students reported being less stressed while they were on their feet and moving—but they kicked that feeling into high gear when they reported also being more mindful.
As we know from previous articles, being more active reduces stress and anxiety, but being more mindful amplifies this effect.
The researchers stated that “It can be difficult to ask people to spend a lot of time doing moderate or vigorous activity by going to the gym or out for a run, especially if they feel stressed.” But what if they don’t need to change their everyday behavior, and can instead focus on changing their state of mind? By becoming more mindful, we can probably see this beneficial effect without having to do a hard HIIT Session or crush a CrossFit WOD by just being more mindful while we simply move around.
As we know from previous articles, being more active will reduce stress and anxiety but being more mindful amplifies this effect.
Brain training in sports is all over the map these days, but one of the more promising versions of this new fad is anchored in mindfulness. In fact, there is a new sports-specific form of mindfulness training called mPEAK (Mindful Performance Enhancement, Awareness, and Knowledge). mPEAK is based on techniques like meditation and yoga, but with a larger emphasis on facing sports-specific challenges, like maintaining concentration during a long or difficult event, or overcoming a character trait, such as perfectionism.
An Italian researcher named Walter Staiano used the mPEAK program on some of his athletes in Denmark. He took 24 members of the national junior handball team and split them into two groups. The two groups then did six weeks of either mindfulness training or simple breathing exercises, in addition to their regular training. The mindfulness training consisted of two or three hours per week of mPEAK training along with regular use of an app called Headspace.
Before and after the study, all of the athletes completed a series of cognitive and physical tests. On the cognitive side, they tested for mind wandering, cognitive flexibility, and resistance to interference from outside stimuli. On the physical side, they tested for reactive agility and handball-specific agility.
In the end, the participants exhibited faster reaction times and got more right answers, their minds wandered less, they quickened their decision times, and completed the task more quickly and with fewer mistakes.
The poor old control group stayed pretty much the same throughout the test.
In a post-study interview, the athletes continued to feel more focused and present in school, on the court, and in private. They also reported better social competence and better sleep, which we all know is a huge bonus for anyone involved in sports or fitness.
Mixing HIIT and Meditation
In New York City, a trainer named Holly Rilinger launched a new class called LIFTED, mixing HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) and meditation. The idea of combining these two disciplines is to train your mind the same way you train your body, through positive thinking.
By being thoughtful and more present during your training, you are more likely to be able to develop a deeper connection between your mind, body, and spirit. Holly calls this balanced feeling “The Joy Factor.”
Tips to exercise more mindfully
Okay, now that we know the benefits and the science behind this idea of bringing mindfulness to our workouts, how the heck do we do it? Do we need to find a mindfulness trainer, move to New York City, or invest in that mPEAK device? No. No, we do not. And I’ll tell you why.
Find your focus
Before beginning your workout, make sure to take a few minutes to center yourself and think about your intent of the coming workout. By intent, I mean the purpose of the workout or what you hope to get out of the workout.
For example, I did a swim workout this morning that was meant to build my confidence in being able to swim the entire Olympic Triathlon race distance, all in one go—no stopping or resting at the wall.
Another example is a strength workout where the goal is to reinforce perfect form during all the lifts. Before you start that workout, picture yourself doing all of the exercises with the precise alignment, form and execution that you plan on nailing. Then go forth and nail them!
Be aware of your posture
Posture and alignment are both areas that are worth your focus and attention. You want your body upright, your shoulders relaxed, your neck long, your arms moving easily forward and back, your hips strong and stable, and your feet relaxed and firmly planted on the ground. Focusing on this can help you move in a more relaxed, efficient, and mindful way. Once you have mastered a relaxed and strong posture, you can really enjoy the de-stressing effects of the movement you are doing.
Breathe deeply and rhythmically
Whether you are running, lifting, swimming, or doing yoga, your breath is an important aspect of movement to be aware of. It is also what beginner meditators are often told to “bring their focus to” as a way of clearing and calming the mind. By focusing on your breath and doing your best to make it as deep and rhythmic as possible, you can extend your mindfulness by engaging your parasympathetic nervous system, which is the part of your nervous system that is associated with resting and digesting.
Remind yourself why you're working out
Many of us find ourselves rushing through our workouts or getting distracted thinking of all the things we could (or should) be doing instead. Remind yourself why it is actually important to you to do this workout. Reflect on why you have made exercise and movement a priority in your life and think about how this workout will help you right now and in the future.
Remind yourself why it is actually important to you to do this workout and why you have made exercise and movement a priority in your life.
See your surroundings
Just because you are “getting your sweat on” doesn’t mean you have to ignore everything else. Try to connect with the beauty of the environment around you. This is something that is easily missed when we are rushing from the car to the gym, or squeezing a workout in over our lunch hour.
For this one, you don’t have to do anything other than notice something worth looking at. Then simply relax into watching for as long as your concentration, movement, or pace allows. One runner I coach reported immediately feeling rejuvenated whenever she spotted a blue heron during her run workout. For me, it's the smell of bacon coming out of a local breakfast spot that I often ride past. Mmm, bacon.
Hear your surroundings
This one is especially effective for those of us who always wear headphones when we workout. Take a break from your favorite playlist or podcast and allow the sounds of the people, cars, bikes, animals, or nature around you to really sink in. You may even find it easier to tune into yourself if you aren’t being distracted by your usual beats and shouting.
Appreciate your abilities
Simply give appreciation to the seemingly insignificant movements that you are doing. Appreciate how far you have come or how much you still have to learn. Remember that not everyone is able to do what you are doing right now and try not to take it for granted.
Practice focus and practice again
Just like yoga or meditation, mindful movement takes practice, time, and patience. Remember, you do not have to be mindful for the entire workout, especially when you are first dabbling with this idea. Simply choose one of the ways I just listed to be mindful for the first five minutes of your workout and then let it go. Center yourself, pick another way that you want to be mindful, and try that one for five minutes.
If you find that you continue to lose focus, don’t worry about it, you can always revisit it again later. Being mindful isn’t about being perfect, it is simply a practice that helps us better cope with the difficult thoughts and feelings that can cause us stress or anxiety during our workouts. So don’t let it add to that stress.
If you practice mindfulness during your workout (or at any other time during the day) you will find that instead of being on autopilot and led by your emotions, you can harness the ability to anchor your mind in the present moment and the present activity. And as the scientific studies showed us, that can help us deal with life’s challenges in a calm, centered, and assertive way while also helping to improve our athletic performance and fitness.