Add Mindfulness to Your Exercise Routine

Young woman practicing yoga

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We often want to distract ourselves from our workouts, but there are many benefits of mindfulness during exercise. They include reducing stress, making you feel good mentally and physically, and even better workouts. 

When you aren't focused on what you're doing, you can lose the sense of satisfaction for a job well done. Your workouts may also not be as effective. Think about it. When you're in a rush to get through your exercise routine, how careful are you with your form?

Mindful fitness can change this. If you add more focus to your workouts, more mindfulness to your exercises, you might get more out of them than you think.

Benefits of Mindfulness During Exercise

Sometimes, there's a benefit to zoning out during workouts. Putting on your favorite playlist and moving your body through a simple activity you don't have to think about—like walking or running—can be meditative. It allows your mind to roam free while your body works.

However, when you're too distracted, you lose the connection to what you're doing; that magical moment of feeling your own strength and power as you exercise. There's a flow that happens when we are in the moment. This flow provides many benefits.

Better Mental Health

A study involving 26 people found that when mindfulness was combined with exercise, participants had improvements in their stress, depression, and anxiety. It found that mindful exercise can help you sleep better too, which can also benefit your mental health.

Another study found similar results. This one was conducted on college students and found that moving mindfully for 14 days helped improve negative affect. Improvements were also noted when subjects were mindful while standing or sitting.

Improved Physical Health

When you focus on what you're doing, you may even improve the quality of your physical health. For example, one piece of research connected mindfulness with increased cardiovascular health. Subjects' body mass indexes were lower as was their fasting glucose.

Research published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine adds that mindful fitness can benefit your breathing, heart rate, and parasympathetic activity. This includes engaging in activities such as yoga, Pilates, and Tai Chi.

Studies have also linked mindfulness with feeling more positive about your physical health, thus leading to more positive health behaviors. Put another way, mindfulness leads to greater physical health by reinforcing your desire to make healthier lifestyle choices.

Stronger Commitment to Exercise

It's not always easy to stay committed to exercise. Yet, one of the benefits of mindfulness is that it strengthens your resolve to stick to your workout routine.

At least, that's what one study involving 266 exercisers at the YMCA found. The people who had higher mindfulness scores were better able to maintain their exercise plans.

Higher Levels of Satisfaction

Working out can be satisfying on its own. When you've done your exercise for the day, it gives you a sense of completion. You know you've done something beneficial for your health and that feels good.

Research has found that people have increased levels of satisfaction when engaged in mindful fitness, especially if they've had a tough time making exercise a habit. This, in turn, helps make it easier to maintain a more active lifestyle.

How to Practice Mindful Fitness

Finding flow in a world full of distractions takes some work. It involves staying in the present (without judgment), so you spend more time on what is happening here and now versus focusing on the past or future. Here's how to do that during your workout.

1. Have a Purpose for Each Workout 

Too often we exercise to lose weight, but that isn't something that's going to happen during any one workout. We need something to hold onto right now.

Having a purpose will give you something to focus on, something to work for and, therefore, something you can feel good about. Some examples of workout purpose are:

  • To finish your planned workout
  • To strengthen specific muscles (e.g., "I'm going to focus on working all the muscles in my lower body")
  • To challenge yourself (e.g., "I'm going to focus on working as hard as I can during my interval workout" )
  • To work out for a certain period of time or burn a certain number of calories
  • To work on a specific area of fitness (e.g., "Today I'm doing cardio to burn calories and build endurance")

An alternative to having a purpose for each workout is to set an intention. This could be a mental goal or pledge, such as dedicating the workout to a loved one who could use positive energy or setting aside a problem you have for the duration of the workout.

2. Pay Attention to Your Body

One way to stay present is to pay continuous attention to your body while exercising. Notice the repetitive strike of your foot on the pavement if you're running, for instance. When strength training, consciously focus on how each muscle feels.

This is not about comparing your body to the exerciser next to you. Instead, it is intended to get you to focus on what you are experiencing during the physical activity. So, turn off the music and TV and give your body your sole attention.

3. Remember Why You're Exercising 

If you find yourself rushing through exercise, thinking of all the things you should be doing instead, remember why it's important to do your workout. Reflect on why have you made exercise a priority and how will this workout help you right now.

Here are some ideas:

  • This workout will help me have more energy for my day.
  • I'll feel really good about myself when I finish my workout.
  • I'll sleep better tonight after this workout.
  • I deserve to take care of myself and exercise is part of that.
  • I'll feel much less stressed if I exercise.

3. Slow Down 

Remember, you set this time aside specifically for your workout, so give yourself permission to actually do it. Take your time with each activity, each movement, particularly the strength training exercises.

Focus on your form, on the upward motion, and the downward motion. Think about your posture, your core, and the rest of your body, including the muscles you are targeting.

Focus on feeling each muscle contract and relax. See just how much you can get out of your exercise time.

4. Remind Yourself to Breathe 

Breathing is the simplest way to deal with stress and bring you to​ the current moment. You're exercising right now and that's all you have to do. You'll deal with the rest when it's time.

If your mind wanders during your workout or you keep watching the clock, close your eyes and take a breath to bring yourself back to the moment. Use the breath as an "attention anchor" to help you refocus.

5. End on a Good Note 

Remember all the good things about the workout and how good it feels when you're done. Give yourself time to cool down and take time to stretch the muscles you worked.

If you can, take a moment to lie down at the end of the workout for a final relaxation. This is your chance to really feel the effects of your hard work.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a mental state in which you are fully present in the current moment, without judgement. You are focused solely on today as opposed to letting your mind dwell on the past or spending a lot of time thinking about (or worrying about) the future.

How does calming exercise improve health and mindfulness?

Mindful fitness activities such as yoga and Pilates improve your health by positively affecting your heart rate, breath rate, and other bodily functions controlled by the parasympathetic nervous system (such as digestion and metabolism). These activities also keep your attention on the present, improving your mindfulness.

A Word From Verywell

Sometimes, we really do need to zone out or just let our bodies go through the motions while the mind wanders. However, if you notice that all your workouts involve some kind of distraction, it may be time to make a change.

Start by being mindful during the next workout. Pay attention to what you're doing and how it feels. Notice what it is about that workout that makes you want a distraction from it. You may discover that changing how you exercise can inspire more mindfulness and more workout satisfaction.

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