Who Said Exercise Can't Be Mindfulness Training?

Mindfulness has become increasingly popular in recent years, due to its vast benefits on improved mood regulation, decreased stress levels, ameliorated chronic pain, and more. Within our culture, however, this practice is still confined to a small box. Meditation and Hatha yoga are commonly associated with mindfulness, but fewer people think of other avenues. The reality is, physical activity of all sorts can have a ‘mindful’ component to it. It’s just a matter of setting your intentions and taking the time to do it right.

This shift is a worthwhile commitment, as mindfulness has been shown to not only decrease anxiety and depression, but also reduce amygdala reactivity, further enhancing emotional regulation. In one Harvard study, it was discovered that just eight weeks of mindfulness shrunk the amygdala, reduced stress levels, and enhanced the temporoparietal junction (TPJ), which is associated with increased empathy and compassion.

Much of the research has been based on meditation and yoga practices, but exercise has also been proven to act as an effective mindfulness tool. In many ways, the ‘stereotypical mindfulness modalities’ and exercise go hand in hand.

“Those who were successful at maintaining exercise tended to score higher on measures of mindfulness…and those who applied mindfulness meditation practices to their daily or weekly routine had a much higher level of physical exercise and general movement.” — Brock Armstrong

Here are three strategies to help merge exercise and mindfulness into one. There’s no promise that these shifts will drastically change your life, but they can increase the quality and fruitfulness of your workouts.

1) Set Out a Purpose for Your Session.

Too often, we’re vague and farsighted about fitness goals. In order to achieve mindfulness, we need something to hold onto right now. Try framing a goal for the day/session and make it meaningful to you.

“I will crush a ‘pull day’ at the gym, hitting a new deadlift PR.” “I’m going to squeeze in 15 minutes of yoga during lunch break to prioritize my mental health.” “I’m going to walk in the forest for 30 minutes after school to recenter myself after a stressful day.”

Having an element of specificity and relevance to your workouts will ensure that you stay present. If you’re stumped on how to fine-tune your planning, try using SMART goals.

Specific: Choose a workout type. Better yet, narrow down your sets and reps (when applicable).

Measurable: Provide a quantitative way to evaluate your work. This can be through calories, time, sets, lbs, distance, etc…

Attainable: Ensure that it’s within your scope of possibility. AKA don’t plan to run a marathon if you haven’t started walking yet.

Relevant: Verify that this goal makes sense for your interests, current activity level, job function, etc…

Time-based: State when / where you will complete the workout or goal.

When you take the time to do the preliminary planning, all that’s left to do is to be present in the moment.

2) Know Your 'Why'.

This is as simple as it sounds. Why are you exercising in the first place? Is it to boost your health? To lose weight? Because you recently had a stroke? You can take this one step further by making exercise intrinsically motivating. If you can nail down a ‘why’ that fulfills a deeper longing, you’ll find mindfulness much more accessible. For example…

“I exercise because it makes me feel alive and improves my sleep quality.” “I exercise because it drastically reduces my stress levels.” “I exercise to be able to play with my grandkids.”

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

3) Limit All Distractions.

Fitness is often associated with high-intensity, stimulating physical activity, but it doesn’t have to be. There are subtle adjustments you can make to allow yourself to take a real breath and connect with the body. Personal favourites of mine are turning off notifications, playing instrumental music, and choosing to workout in nature. Make these decisions personal and meaningful to you, and strive to achieve one or two sessions a week when you take a break from the bustling gym or studio.

Another way to implement calm into all workouts is to take ‘4 minutes of mindfulness’. Find yourself some space on the floor, close your eyes, and cycle through 4-second box breaths. In through the nose. Hold for four. Slowly exhale. Repeat. Throughout this process, do a brief body scan. This will allow you to connect with your inner self in a way that’s calm and nonjudgemental.

In Closing,

There is no reason why exercise can’t be an effective form of mindfulness. Evidence shows that the two can seamlessly merge together, allowing an individual to reap benefits from both practices. If nothing else, reframing the intention around exercise allows one to be present in the body. In a world that is seemingly stuck on 2x speed, this is something that we should all be desperately striving for.

“Our conscious self plays a vital role in maintaining our inner equilibrium. We need to register and act on our physical sensations to keep our bodies safe.”— Dr. Bessel A. van der Kolk

Mindfulness goes far beyond the bounds of yoga and meditation.

Choose to move mindfully.