Fitness Articles

Are You Exercising Mindfully?

Think Your Way to Better Results

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We're masters at self-distraction: If you walk into any gym, you'll likely see people's gazes fixed on magazines, TVs or phones as they chug away on treadmills or ellipticals. When jogging outside, you might run through a mental to-do list or listen to a podcast to take your mind off the miles looming ahead. And, for some, attending group fitness classes or exercising with friends provides a social diversion from the discomfort.
 
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with multi-tasking. There are times when you need to sneak exercise into a busy day any way you can, and a distracted workout is better than no workout. That said, for those who aren't getting the desired results or are ready to take their fitness to the next level, it may be time for a more mindful approach to exercise.
 
Focusing on Bite-Size Goals
 
Larger fitness goals--such as running a 5K, losing a certain amount of weight or adopting a healthier lifestyle--are very motivating. But when you're in the trenches of your daily workouts, it's easy to lose sight of those goals or become overwhelmed by them. When a mile feels incredibly difficult, the idea of tripling that distance in a race may seem next to impossible.
 
When engaging in mindful exercise, you focus on each individual movement during your workout. Instead of thinking about the race that's six months away, focus on the quarter-mile in front of you. Rather than getting discouraged by the super-buff people working out at the gym around you, pay attention to how your own biceps respond to each curl, and how much stronger they become with each rep.
 
"Mindfulness gives you a purpose for your workout," says Sarah Bright, a certified personal trainer and nutrition specialist. "There might be a larger goal, but focusing on your current movement and experience can help you remember the smaller, immediate goal. It might be to go farther or faster today than last week, or lift a weight for one more repetition. Focusing on a simple purpose for your workout can help propel you to achieve your larger goals."
 
Making the Mind/Muscle Connection
 
Wouldn't it be great if you could just think about exercise and see results? Unfortunately, it's not quite that easy—but mental focus has been shown to boost the effectiveness of workouts. In a 2015 study, participants showed increased muscle activity when they concentrated intently on the muscle being worked. Although a lot of the research focuses on strength training, experts believe that the same principle applies to any type of exercise.
 
Franklin Antoian, one of Shape Magazine's Top 50 Trainers in America and founder of iBodyFit.com, maintains the importance of the mind/muscle connection. "When working out, always be mindful of what muscle is responsible for performing the move(s) that you are doing," says Antoian. "Focusing on this muscle will force it to work 100%, instead of recruiting other muscles for help."
 
As an example, think about the last time you did crunches or sit-ups. Were you focused on your core muscles, or were you thinking about how much longer until you could stop? According to Francis Ramsden, owner of Ramden Elite Fitness, the abdominals are one muscle group that commonly suffers from a bad mind/body connection. "During a sit-up, most individuals use momentum to produce the movement instead of contracting the abdominals," says Ramsden. "By simply telling yourself to 'squeeze and suck in my abs,' it produces more muscle activation. I use this instruction cue with my clients on a regular basis."
 
Mastering Challenging Techniques
 
You don't have to be a bodybuilder to benefit from making the mind/muscle connection. Whatever your workout of choice, focusing on the movements will help you learn new techniques and get more out of the experience.
 
Dave Gaudette of Front Range Boxing explains that mindfulness is a key ingredient in his clients' success. "The boxer’s workout requires intense focus," he says. "It's not just about breathing hard; it's also about developing your technique, learning to move and punch, accurately and powerfully, at the same time."
 
The same goes for any activity. If you're in a class that has specialized equipment or routines–such as Spinning, Pilates or barre--mindful exercise will help you master the positions and transitions, so you can complete the workout with confidence.
 
Thinking Away Pain and Injury
 
Some believe that the mind has the power to overcome pain and fatigue. Beth Weinstein, an ultramarathon runner from New York City, has relied on mantras and positive thinking to carry her through tough endurance races. During one 50K race, she used intense mind focus to overcome a sharp knee pain. "I definitely think training is important, but there's a lot to be said for mental training and the power of the mind over the body," Weinstein said.
 
Even if you're not experiencing pain, try using the mind to push away negative thoughts during workouts. For example, instead of focusing on the discomfort during grueling treadmill intervals, pay attention to your heart pumping and your muscles getting stronger with each stride.
 
Taking a mindful approach to exercise also helps ensure that you're using proper form and technique, which leads to safer workouts and less risk of injury. When you're tuned into your body, you'll pick up new sensations that you might miss if you were mentally checked out.  
 
"Setting aside your magazine or phone can allow you to notice new sensations," Bright says. "Are you pushing harder with one leg than the other? Maybe your shoulders are creeping up during a run or walk. We can use our new awareness to improve our exercise form, and potentially reduce the risk of injury."
 
Quick Tips for Mindful Exercise
  • Have a Plan: Fitness professional Angelique Millis stresses the importance of having a plan for each workout. In addition to the exercise itself, this can include music, apparel and other motivating tools. "Don’t mindlessly read magazines or watch TV as you do cardio," Millis recommends. "Use this as a constructive time for your personal development. Create playlists that make your workouts more enjoyable, or download motivational audio that helps you visualize your goals."
  • Embrace the "Naked Workout": Sarah Anne Kelly of MomTrainer advocates "naked workouts" as a way of banishing distractions and focusing on each individual action. "When I say 'naked,' I mean completely unplugged—no fancy gear, no goal-attached exercise. I practice mindfulness and joy while I'm out on an easy jog, with nothing but water and a key. Recognizing each movement, paying attention to the sounds of your breath and the contraction of your muscles, and practicing gratefulness for your body, is a big piece of the wellness puzzle."
  • Practice Visualization: Carol Frazey from The Fit School recommends designing a vision board of your hopes and dreams and keeping it in front of you while working out.
  • Dedicate Your Workouts: Pick a friend or loved one who needs positive energy in his or her life. During your run, walk or exercise session, think about transferring your power, strength and vitality to that person.
  • Adopt a Mantra: Many experts advise creating a positive mantra and repeating it (verbally or mentally) while exercising. Frazey recommends trying different positive words or thoughts to see which phrases help energize and motivate you. 
Above all, Bright says, being mindful of your movements could increase your exercise plan satisfaction, and greater satisfaction leads to greater adherence, which leads to improved results. If you're just going through the motions, it may be time to put more mind into your workouts.
 
Are you ready to put your mind into your workout plan? Share your ideas for making the mind-body connection.

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Member Comments

  • I took advantage of Transcendental Meditation when it was popular. It was a Godsend. I totally withdrew from a 15 year addiction to Valium with no bad withdrawal .
  • I find concentrating on the musclesI'm hoping to work definitely helps.
  • Great tips we mostly ignore.
  • I have never thought about mindfulness exercing but I going to work on it.
  • I am not sure that I do always practice mindfulness when I exercise. I will need to focus on that during my next workout.
  • The question is not what you look at, but what you see. - Henry David Thoreau
  • I just enjoy my workouts...most of the time. Sometimes i don't feel like working out, but I do it anyway because I like how I feel afterwards. Being mindful of what you're doing just comes naturally nowadays. I've been working out for many years. What I really should be doing is watching my diet by far better!
  • Once again, shaking free the thoughts and ideas accumulated in the back of my consciousness, somewhere!
  • I find if I do things more mindfully and with clear intention, I have better form and better outcomes!
  • This yoga stuff needs tons of patience.
  • Focusing your mind on what your body is doing is fundamental to martial arts. I treat martial art exercise as a meditation, with the mental part as important as the physical part (if not more so).

    A study of meditation years ago led me to conclude that what is called the work ethic is (or can be) the meditation of the western world. All meditation is based in two things: concentration and relaxation. If you want to turn something into a meditation, focus your mind on it, and be as relaxed as you can while you do it. This can apply to exercise as well as work. Obviously the muscles doing the work are the opposite of relaxed, but making yourself be relaxed keeps all other muscles relaxed,including the opposing muscles, which will improve your movement and make it better exercise. This is the key to the speed of martial art movements (or at least one key).

    Mantra meditation is easy but in my opinion kind of a waste, since there are better things to focus your mind on. Years ago a type of mantra meditation called Transcendental Meditation (TM) was widely sold; buyers were told that each person had to have his own special mantra for it to work. This of course was pure nonsense, but it did make a lot of money for the ones who came up with it, since the buyer had to pay them to come up with their own special mantra.

    Zen uses an expanded kind of mantra called a koan, which is a meaningless word or phrase repeated over and over. A better version of this is what is called self hypnosis. Get into the meditative mindset with a relaxation technique (the best one for most people being what is called progressive relaxation), and then let the phrase you repeat over and over be a suggestion you give yourself, such as I will eat less and healthier food, I will control my anger, or my favorite, the more important it is that I do well the more important it is that I remain calm. Any of these, or whatever you come up with to suit your needs, is better than a meaningless phrase.

    If you do these meditations you will find your ability to ...
  • Mindful exercise makes sense, but what if your mind wasn't on exercise? What if your mind was on moving, transporting yourself? What if your mind was on fun, that feeling you get when your mind is induced to increase what you're doing, what if you just let your body take over without that concentration this article is about?
    I experience these conditions for years with different self-powered vehicles, unlike grueling treadmill intervals, waiting for that timer to end your mindful exercise.
    Trying to explain an experience without actually living it is difficult, like trying to explain an emotion, but it's the emotion that comes when you're propelling yourself after gaining momentum that you created, that is using energy not wasted staying in the same place you started. You are capitalizing on your energy, producing endorphins, accomplishing multiple reasons, you are moving, not just exercise, but self-satisfaction
    , fun, generating increased energy, your mind is on your body, the experience.
    Now try that on a treadmill. I chose a Me-Mover, you can make your own choice, but whatever you choose, make it a choice not to waste energy, but to enhance it.
  • Actually concentrating and tensing on the muscle groups you are exercising will help strengthen the muscle. I was lucky enough to have a great physical therapist who taught me that.

About The Author

Melissa Rudy Melissa Rudy
A lifelong Cincinnatian, Melissa earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from University of Cincinnati before breaking into online writing in 2000. As a Digital Journalist for SparkPeople, she enjoys helping others meet their wellness goals by writing about all aspects of healthy living. An avid runner and group fitness addict, Melissa lives in Loveland with her guitarist husband and three feisty daughters.
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