Mindfulness in Motion
Combine mindfulness and exercise in this new fitness trend
If the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that taking care of our mental health is just as important as caring for our bodies. But can we do both at the same time?
As mindfulness meditation has skyrocketed in popularity—with countless apps and online classes—the next step is to combine mindfulness practices with our fitness plans.
Although we may picture meditation as a sedentary, there are many ways to practice mindfulness in motion. For example, yoga is known for combining physical and spiritual elements, and mindfulness walking has become increasingly popular during the pandemic (see County Lines May 2021 article by Jenkins Arboretum).
It’s time to change how we view both meditation and exercise by embracing mindful fitness, a new way to incorporate mindful practices into our workout routine. Beyond yoga and walking, mindfulness can become part of virtually any type of exercise, from barre classes to running and even high-intensity interval training (HIIT).
First, let’s be clear about what mindfulness is. In short, it’s a conscious effort to exist in the present moment, not dwelling on the past or thinking ahead to the future. The key is focusing on your current experience—noticing your surroundings, the rhythm of your breath, any sensations or feelings in your body. It’s also about being aware of your thoughts, acknowledging them without engaging with them.
Practitioners of mindful fitness are happy to welcome newcomers. At Vibe Vault Fit, a boutique fitness studio in Exton, founders Kristine Carroll and Bhavna “Dr. B” Shyamalan offer a variety of mind-and-body workouts, from yoga and meditation to dance workouts and HIIT.
They started their studio with the idea that the self functions as a system. “You can’t be fully healthy or thriving unless all parts of the system are healthy. We can work on our bodies, but we must also address our thoughts, beliefs, emotions and mindsets … By that we mean mindful living as well as a sense of connectedness, meaning and purpose. Without that combination, we will always stop short of meeting our fullest capacity in life, even in terms of our physical health.”
So how do we incorporate mindfulness into our workout routines and connecting the mind and body? While many of us tend to zone out while we exercise, mindful fitness involves being truly present while we work out. This requires a tremendous amount of mental energy and willpower in addition to physical effort.
You can incorporate mindfulness into most workouts by following these steps.
First, start your workout with a moving meditation while you warm up. Often workouts are squeezed in between other activities, and you may already be stressed before you begin, making this quiet time even more important. Take a moment to clear your mind and engage with your mind and body.
Next, while you exercise, pay attention to your body. Notice how your body is moving and how it feels to move it. Pay attention to your muscles, your breathing and any resistance or tension you feel. Observe how your body reacts to changes in pace and intensity.
It’s equally important to pay attention to your thoughts and feelings during your workout. Acknowledge and accept them, but do your best not to get caught up in them.
Finally, incorporate reflection time into your cool-down routine. Be aware of the feeling of your muscles stretching. Notice how it feels to slow down in both your body and mind.
End with a short gratitude exercise. Thank your body for all the work it does. Appreciate what it’s allowed you to do today.
Though mindful fitness is a relatively new concept, we’re already discovering benefits. For example, being mindful and present under the physical stress of working out improves our ability to carry this heightened sense of awareness into other parts of our lives.
Also, a study from Rutgers University found that 30 minutes of aerobic exercise paired with 30 minutes of meditation twice a week reduced depression symptoms by about 40% in just two months. Non-depressed participants also reported that they had fewer negative thoughts and ruminated on them less.
Rebecca Mackey, Chester County-based fitness coach, can attest to that. “As someone who’s struggled with depression and anxiety, I use fitness as a healthy way to cope with those feelings,” she says. “On my worst mental health days, dragging myself to the gym and working out on the treadmill helps me get out of that hole.”
Practicing mindfulness while exercising can be a big change from our usual routine. These ideas may help.
Have a purpose. The best way to get through a workout is to have a goal. While long-term goals like getting in shape and improving your health and wellbeing are a good start, begin each workout with a more specific goal in mind—exercising for a set amount of time, focusing on a part of your body, reducing stress, or anything that works for you. When you feel like giving up, remember your purpose.
Mackey says that this “why” has to come from within yourself: “Do it because it makes you feel good, not because others tell you to.”
Unplug. Remove distractions before starting your workout—put away your earbuds or phone and turning off the TV. Take time to truly engage with the workout and pay attention to your body. A great way to maintain focus is to get outside. Engage your senses and notice your surroundings, taking in all the sights and sounds.
Listen to your body. Observe how your body feels. What is it telling you? Should you pick up the pace? Slow down or take a break? Especially in the beginning, it might be telling you to stop. Listen and adjust accordingly.
Focus on your breath. When in doubt, go back to the breath. If you get sucked into negative self-talk or get stressed by everything on your To-Do list, turn your focus on breathing. Feel the air travel through your body—in through your nose, down your throat, filling your lungs and released through your mouth. Use your breath as an anchor when you lose focus or get overwhelmed by thoughts.
Practice kindness. Treat yourself with compassion. Don’t compare yourself to others or your past self. Appreciate your ability in the present moment and thank yourself for showing up. Let yourself be proud and feel good about your accomplishments.
This positive self-talk is crucial to developing a healthy relationship with fitness. Carroll and Dr. B note that “we try to be extremely cognizant of the power of language and messaging at [our studio], especially when we teach a class. We work to promote body positivity, self-love and empowerment throughout all we do.”
That said, the most important advice is not to worry about whether you’re “doing it right.” Mindfulness is about finding peace in the present moment. Whatever feels right for you is what is right for you.
Give yourself the gift of wellness in both body and mind and begin your mindfulness journey.
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