Are You Exercising Mindfully?

We're masters of 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, 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.