Mindfulness is focusing practice that can have considerable benefits when applied to so many aspects of our everyday lives. You’ve probably got a basic grasp of it if you’ve ever been to a yoga class, but what is not as widely understood is how it can also be utilized in other types of exercise.
It can easily be integrated into any routine once you understand it, so here is a quick breakdown on its benefits and some ideas on how you can start adding to your own workout.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a pretty common term used in the world of health and wellness, but there are quite a few different ideas of what it really means. At its core, and the one thing that all mindful practitioners seem to agree on, is the importance of both awareness and focus. This means an awareness of yourself and your surroundings: simply ‘being’ in the present moment, without allowing thoughts to make judgements or distract your mind.
Sometimes, mindfulness can be mistaken for clearing your mind of all thoughts. Rather than an absence of thoughts, we allow thoughts that occur naturally, rather than to judge or become involved in them. One of the best descriptions of this I came across was describing it like being ‘a silent observer of our thoughts.’
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What Are the Benefits When Applied to Exercise?
Mindfulness is regularly applied to yoga and tai-chi practices, where it’s pretty much inbuilt into the exercises like a warm up is for most of us. The application of mindfulness to yoga is done through connecting movements and breathing, and is a good example of how physical and mindful exercises go hand-in-hand.
What is less obvious is how it might be applied to high intensity sports and what some of the benefits of this are. Research has shown there to be a number of benefits to mindfulness: it helps us regulate our emotions, reduce stress, improve memory and focus.
Anxiety and Stress
For both top level athletes or amateur sports players involved in competitions, one benefit is how mindfulness can be used to help handle anxiety and psychological issues related to competing.
An American study reported results of implementing mindfulness techniques on a group of BMX racers: the application of mindfulness did not prevent stress, but it heightened competitors awareness that they were going to experience a potentially stressful situation. Ultimately, it changed their attitude toward this situation as they recognised the impending stress or anxiety that might come from the situation. In turn, the racers reduced the negative association of stress, resulting in the level of stress they perceived to actually decrease.
The other affect the study suggested was that mindfulness training could be used as a coping mechanism: higher levels of mindfulness would both help athletes perceive situations as less stressful and then when situation developed into being stressful, they were able to use mindfulness techniques to cope with the effects of stress.
This effect of stress and how we deal with challenges of exercise might also impact our commitment to a chosen sport and workout. The team behind a recent Dutch study on mindfulness and exercise focused their research on how mindfulness might be applied to enhance the satisfaction we get from physical activity.
This study looked at people who practised mindfulness both during and outside of the workout itself. Their findings reported that mindfulness did play a role in heightening our enjoyment in exercise, and with this higher rate of satisfaction, we were more likely be committed to our exercise routines.
This higher rate of satisfaction doesn’t directly affect performance, but instead the association of enjoyment with exercise makes it more likely that we will do it again... and again – after all, if it’s something we enjoy, we’re going to be pretty happy doing it.
So, there is evidence to suggest that mindfulness can improve our mental performance, but what about physical rewards and results?
In the world of American basketball, one advocate of mindfulness is Phil Jackson coach of Chicago Bulls and the Lakers. His approach to mindfulness aimed to calm and reduce conflict to build mental strength that would result in physical strength and performance in matches being improved. This is particularly relevant to team sports and competitions, where players needs to reset and stay in the moment by focusing on their current performance rather than previous mistakes.
Practising mindfulness can benefit your fitness and exercise regime, both mentally and physically, but it’s definitely not a quick fix to enhance your exercise routine. It’s an exercise in itself, so developing your own mindfulness practise will require time and dedication. Mindfulness could have an effect in shaping your identity as an athlete, strengthening your mind and making you a calmer competitor.
How to Start Applying Mindfulness to Exercise?
In order to experience some of these benefits, mindfulness can be practised during your workout. From your warm up to cool down, check out the steps below to help you hone your own techniques.
Before you start, turn off your phone: mindfulness come from being aware and in the moment, so no multitasking or distractions!
1. Set an Intention for Each Workout
So you might have long term goals to lose weight, for example, but mindfulness is focusing on the moment, so select an intention that can be achieved in parameters of each specific workout. This might mean strengthening one area of your body or to work out for a fixed period of time. Whilst you are exercising regularly, remind yourself of that intention and focus on the benefits it will have for you at that point in time.
2. Be Aware of Both Your Body and External Environment
To bring awareness to your exercise, be aware of how your body feels on that specific day. Begin by concentrating on each part of your body, changing it depending how your body is feeling on the day.
Also recognise your environment, taking in everything that is going on around you; people passing, the sound of the wind, the temperature and everything that stimulates your senses.
3. Acknowledge Your Pain
When you experience pain, don’t ignore it! It might signal something’s wrong, in which case respond to it. Pain can also be a sign of growth from your workout. Embrace any pains and let the thoughts of your original intentions come to mind. Exercise is about growing and pain is part of the process.
4. Remember Your Breathing
Breathing is one of the most important tools for mindfulness. Remember how seamlessly it fits with yoga? Concentrate on deep breathing and utilise this in the very peak of your workout routine – when you’re really feeling up against it. Breathing is also great way to deal with stress, so by concentrating on this, you’ll be able to eliminate any distractions.
5. Don’t Skip Stretching – This Includes Cooling Down!
This is one of the most important parts of exercise, as it optimises both performance and recovery.
Being in the moment and continuing to focus on the techniques above at this stage really contributes to better and deeper stretching.
Remember that mindfulness in itself is an exercise, and it’s not easy to get the hang of straight away. Mindfulness needs regular practise and commitment itself. It can be practised on its own, known as formal mindfulness, or applied to exercise and daily life, like above, known as informal mindfulness.
Whatever works for you, just remember to be in the moment.