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Ashley Solomon, Psy.D is a psychologist who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, body image, trauma, and serious mental illness.

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Mindful Exercise

February 2, 2011 27 Comments by Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul

runner

{Image Credit :: Josh Janesen}

I often hear fitness experts promoting various ways of distracting ourselves from the pain that many believe to be inherent in exercise. I’m not talking about mantras or visualizing yourself crossing the finish line, both tools that can be very positive and body-affirming; I’m talking about tips I’ve heard such as “mentally prepare your grocery list” or “listen to an engaging audiobook.”

The problem with thinking about milk and eggs while engaging in exercise is that, like worrying about tomorrow’s budget meeting while having sex, it takes us out of the moment and into our minds. And our minds, amazingly enough, are not always the best places to be.

I would venture to say that the vast majority of us are not present during 99 percent of our lives. Being present means approaching our thoughts, feelings, and actions with awareness and intention. When it comes to mindful eating, it means attending to the full range of sensations in the experience of an orange.

But what is mindful exercise all about?

Mindful exercise involves being aware of our bodies and minds during physical activity. It means tuning in rather than tuning out, and allowing ourselves to be fully present, even in moments of discomfort.

Why the heck would we want to do that?

Great question! There are numerous benefits of practicing mindful exercise. Consider a few of them:

  • Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer and her student found that making women more aware during physical activity resulted in lowering their blood pressure, decreasing their body weight and body fat, and improving waist to hip ratios. The women in the study did not change their behavior, they simply became more aware that they were engaging in physical activity.
  • Mindful exercise serves as a great practice of mindfulness in our daily lives. If we exercise daily – whether it’s more formally by going to a gym or simply by playing with our children or shoveling the snow – we have a built in time to practice being more present in our lives. And we know that this practice can lead to decreased depression and anxiety, decreased stress, improved immune functioning, stronger relationships, and better sleep. It’s like a magic pill!
  • Mindful exercise also tunes us in to our bodies. If we stay focused and aware of the various points of tension and stress, we can detect problems more quickly and potentially avoid more serious injury. Personally, I blame too many treadmill workouts watching the Today Show for my late-in-the-game marathon training injury a few years back. Had I been focusing more on the signals my body was sending me sooner, I may have been able to resolve the issue and avoid being sidelined.
  • Mindful exercise can make us better athletes. When we’re able to tune in to the way that our bodies move and flow, as well as increase our awareness of our surroundings, our performance improves. To be on top of our game, we have to be operating with intention and focus. In competitive sports, mindfulness gives athletes an edge by increasing perception and reaction time.

So, how do I do “mindful exercise”?

If you tend to be an on-the-go runner, like me, it may help to supplement your more intense aerobic workouts with a lower-intensity, mindfulness-based practice, such as yoga. A recent study found that even a single session of yoga or Feldenkrais produced mood-enhancement in participants. Stepping off the elliptical and into a class such as these will help you learn to focus your awareness and stay more present as your body moves.

While anywhere your mind goes is okay (You’re not doing anything wrong if you do start planning your grocery list. It’s a judgment-free zone!), it might be helpful to start by becoming aware of the following:

  • Breathing – Notice the rate of your breathing, the feeling as your chest rises and falls, and even the sound.
  • Heart Rate – Notice how your heart feels as it pumps blood to the rest of your body.
  • Muscle Pangs – Observe all the little twinges, and make sure to stop if you the twinges are actually pain.
  • Areas of tension – Notice where your body feels tighter and looser. Focus on what it feels like to have your muscles contract and release.
  • Joints – Observe the feeling as your body moves at your joints. Is it smooth? Creaky?
  • Thoughts – Notice any thoughts that come into your mind. If they are critical, observe them and come back to your breath.

Just like everything related to mindfulness, mindful exercise takes practice. You’re likely to find your mind in all sorts of different places and tied up in all different ways, and that’s okay. Stay aware that even by engaging in a few moments of mindfulness per day, you’re treating your mind, body, and spirit in a whole new way.

Do you ever turn off the iPod and focus on your body during exercise?

NTS-Medium

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24 Comments

  1. Sarah D.
    4 years ago

    Nice! Great post

    Reply

  2. Joy Tanksley
    4 years ago

    Great post, Ashley. And I would add that this is a great opporntunity for folks to discover if they actually enjoy their exercise of choice. If being mindful for a few minutes during exercise is a miserable activity, chances are it’s because you’re doing something you hate. I could never stomach being on a treadmill mindfully – not saying someone else couldn’t, just my personal thing. I always needed television or blaring music because it was such a soul-crushing chore for me. But when I’m riding my bike on a beautiful trail, or dancing Nia, I don’t want to be thinking about anything other than what I’m doing because I love the activity so much.

    Reply

    • Julie
      4 years ago

      “f being mindful for a few minutes during exercise is a miserable activity, chances are it’s because you’re doing something you hate.”

      Joy, that sentence could sound like a total “captain obvious” thing to say. But it never occurred to me! Lol Isn’t it like that with the greatest lessons of life?
      Thank you for the insight, that tip was precious.

      Reply

  3. Stacie @ Imperfectly Healthy
    4 years ago

    It’s kind of sad because I don’t tend to pay that much attention during my workouts, but I always pay attention to my body after because I love the feeling that it gives me. Something I need to work on.
    Stacie @ Imperfectly Healthy recently posted..Body Acceptance vs Giving Up

    Reply

  4. rebecca lustig
    4 years ago

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE mindful running outdoors. there is NOTHING more invigorating or self soothing. getting in touch with yoru body and the way it moves can be very healthy and nourishing for yourself

    Reply

    • Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul
      4 years ago

      Yes! There is something so magical about running outside. Such a different experience than anything else.

      Reply

  5. Margarita @ Weightless
    4 years ago

    Excellent post, Ashley! What you said is spot-on! Many people hate the physical activities they’re doing, probably because the end goal is weight loss or something similar. So they need the distraction. That’s why it is so important to do things we like.

    I like to do a variety of activities, including going to the gym, biking, Pilates, yoga and DVDs from my extensive collection (really, it’s like an addiction!). I try to be mindful when I’m on the stepper, for instance (which I really enjoy), but usually I love listening to my music and daydreaming. I’m more mindful when I’m riding my bike or doing Pilates or yoga.

    Being mindful of what we’re doing is actually important for happiness, which is pretty cool!
    Margarita @ Weightless recently posted..Is Obesity Really Killing Us Part 2 With Linda Bacon

    Reply

  6. Lori Lieberman
    4 years ago

    Provocative! There are times mindfulness is a natural, like when I am doing activities outdoors, that I love. I am mindful of my strength and of the beauty around me.But at the gym? There’s is nothing I need more than distraction–music,TV, whatever, to ease the boredom!
    Lori Lieberman recently posted..Lessons from the Tiger Mom

    Reply

    • Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul
      4 years ago

      I also find myself much more distracted and distractable at the gym. I am starting to recognize that if something is boring (like running on a treadmill), it might be time to find something more joyful or exciting to do for exercise. But it’s also a good time for me to catch up on cable t.v. since I don’t have it at home ;-)

      Reply

  7. Alex @ Healing Beauty
    4 years ago

    Wonderful post! My recovery is based a lot on all types of mindfulness, and for me mindful exercise means listening to when my body needs to stop and take a rest and when it wants to go a little further. For me, yoga has been an integral part of this because it allows me to connect with myself and be aware of how my body and mind are feeling. I really enjoy the union that yoga brings and I have found it helps me in other forms of exercise as well.
    Alex @ Healing Beauty recently posted..Here’s to 50 more

    Reply

  8. Michele @ Healthy Cultivations
    4 years ago

    I definitely prefer to exercise in silence… unless of course I’m exercising with another person, in which case there’s lots of conversation. I’ve listened to the iPod in the past, but I find it distracting at a time that’s purely for me… when I can focus on my thoughts, how I feel physically and emotionally. That’s a grounding time for me.

    Reply

    • Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul
      4 years ago

      I used to never understand how people could exercise in silence. But just like you say, it can be incredibly grounding!

      Reply

  9. Dana Udall-Weiner
    4 years ago

    Good question, Ashley. I have to admit that I am much more likely to engage in strenuous exercise if I disconnect from my body, which usually means failing to listen to it. But these workout don’t leave me emotionally satisfied or well; they merely leave me sweaty. I think yoga is a great way to increase mindfulness and get in touch with the moment and with ourselves. I had never heard of research linking mindfullness (without actual behavior change) to decreasing body weight or fat. Fascinating stuff!

    Reply

  10. Jill Will Run
    4 years ago

    So well put… I wrote a post on my site a while ago about “Tuning In vs. Zoning Out” that kind of touched on the same stuff, but your focus on mindfulness is wonerful. I’m trying to incorporate more mindful behaviors in my day-to-day life. I really helps with recovery.
    Jill Will Run recently posted..Not What I Planned!

    Reply

    • Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul
      4 years ago

      I’ll be checking out your post! I think this topic is not addressed enough.

      Reply

  11. Ann Becker-Schutte
    4 years ago

    Thanks Ashley for another powerful post. Like Alex and Dana, yoga is my favorite mindful exercise. It is amazing to be present in such a compassionate movement space. When I got to go to the gym regularly, I also loved the feeling of Zumba and my other group classes.

    Joy–you nailed it!! When we do exercise that we love, we don’t need to be distracted.

    Reply

  12. Dorry
    4 years ago

    Great post! Training for my 2nd half marathon has me being more mindful in exercise. Not all the time, bu much more than I used to be. Like you said in this post, I pay more attention to my body and my breathing. On a long run, I go back and forth between zoning out to a song or the nature around me and really paying attention to my form, my heart rate and any areas of pain. Just like every runner out there, I don’t want to an injury, so being mindful in that way is important. There are still times when I’m stressed out from a tough day and end up zoning out completely, but I have to admit that can feel great and help me clear my head, too.
    Dorry recently posted..Icy Conscious Eating

    Reply

  13. charlotte
    4 years ago

    Love this! I’m all about mindful exercise these days (or at least I’m trying to be!) This morning I did a yoga meditation where I focused exactly on the sensations in my body as you described. I was surprised at, well, being surprised. Parts of me were sore that I hadn’t realized and I also felt the beginnings of a cold I hadn’t noticed. Now, if I can just incorporate this mindfulness into all my workouts!
    charlotte recently posted..The Exercise Widower Phenomenon Coming to a marriage near you

    Reply

  14. Leslie
    4 years ago

    Oooh–I love this post! I echo what other people have said about finding exercise that’s enjoyable. This also reminds me that it’s easier to be mindful when doing something somewhat challenging or mentally engaging, versus just one speed on a cardio machine. For me, I find dance classes and weight training to be great forms of mindful exercise because I have to pay close attention to every body part!
    Leslie recently posted..Zen and the Art of Muscle Maturation

    Reply

  15. Sverre
    4 years ago

    I’m into mindfulness and have just started running regularly, but getting the hang of mindful running is something I still struggle with. Practise, practise, practise I guess.

    Anyway, there’s a brand new mindfulness-specific forum over at MindfulnessWeb.Net. Still in it’s toddler stage, but the only one of its kind as far as I know.

    Reply

  16. Lina Mcmillan
    3 years ago

    I used to never understand how people could exercise in silence. Parts of me were sore that I hadn’t realized and I also felt the beginnings of a cold I hadn’t noticed.
    Lina Mcmillan recently posted..Cancer Tattoos Tumblr

    Reply

  17. Celeste Knowles
    3 years ago

    Good question, Ashley. And I would add that this is a great opporntunity for folks to discover if they actually enjoy their exercise of choice.
    Celeste Knowles recently posted..Many Mops

    Reply

  18. Sonya
    1 month ago

    I know this if off topic but I’m looking into starting my own blog and was curious what all is needed to get set up?
    I’m assuming having a blog like yours would cost a pretty penny?

    I’m not very web smart so I’m not 100% certain. Any suggestions or advice would be greatly appreciated.
    Cheers
    Sonya recently posted..Sonya

    Reply

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3 Trackbacks

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Project Swole, HealthBean, Dr. Ashley Solomon, Hive Health Media, Evelyn Parham and others. Evelyn Parham said: RT @nourishthesoul Mindful Exercise: Image Credit :: Josh Janesen I often hear fitness experts pr… http://bit.ly/ekvCuV #health #diet [...]

  2. [...] I follow Dr. Ashley Solomon (@nourishthesoul) on Twitter and in her blog, she’s written a good article on the idea of “mindful exercise” which has helped me quite a bit. Mindful exercise is [...]

  3. […] exercise that involves mindfulness can actually produce more physical and emotional gains than exercise that involves distractions. First, there are the general benefits that come from […]

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