Wellbeing Wednesdsay: Mindfullness
The fitness and gym industry is at a beautiful crossroads. The tendency for aesthetically based fitness goals are beginning to more often merge towards wellness and health related aspirations. Our society is starting to earnestly view exercise as a preventative and treatment method for many autoimmune and chronic diseases. More and more, individuals want to improve their longevity, extended their independence in later years, and feel good in their body.
Unfortunately, many people are exercising “blindly”. They find a workout in an article or from Pinterest and go through the movements. Now don’t misunderstand me, there are still many benefits and results that will occur from this. I am not advocating that this is a wrong approach. For many it is a huge accomplishment to get themselves to the gym, and truly it is! Beginning or continuing a regular exercise schedule is a feat in itself. What I do want to suggest is bringing mindfulness into your fitness if you are searching for a little bit more.
As a yoga and fitness professional I hear a slew of notions concerning mindfulness. Some of them insightful, some being a smidge laughable and others that leave me disheartened. Most commonly I hear from individuals who are searching for more in their fitness life, but don’t know how to begin. And this is why I am passionate about yoga, fitness and health. As an individual becomes more active, they grow closer to their truest human expression. A more physically fit body craves a more physically fit mind. It is an inevitable occurrence. The human body is meant to move, and produce force and be physically challenged. Physical activity literally improves the body and mind’s overall state. It triggers the hypothalamus to release endorphins; the hormones responsible for pain reduction and producing that “feel good” feeling. Exercise also lowers the overall levels of cortisol (our stress hormone) and improves immune functions. [Source: Sheve]
But what does it mean?
The Merriam-Webster definition reads that mindfulness is: the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one's thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis. [Source: Merriam-Webster]
Well, that sounds like a lot to try and accomplish during a workout, and it certainly can be. However, there are some simple mindful practices that can be applied to bring a deeper connection between exercise and your body.
Start with the Basics
One of the first things we lose awareness of during exercise is our breath. As a yoga instructor turned personal trainer, I can’t emphasize how important established breathing patterns are in exercise.
Proper breathing mechanics in all exercise will improve:
- Effectiveness of workout
- Maintaining correct form
- Concentration during execution
When the inhale and exhale are performed during the proper points of muscular contraction, the movement is that much safer. Exhaling during the most force production keeps intra-abdominal pressure down, discourages sharp spikes in blood pressure, and reduces stress on the body which ultimately makes the exercise easier to perform.
If you are maintaining proper breathing during your exercise, this will consequently steer your focus towards the action at hand. This means improved concentration and less risk of injury because your full attention is on the workout.
Also, make sure that your breaths are full and complete. Many of us are exercising with shallow breath which is minimizing the amount of oxygen delivered to the working muscles and the amount of waste being expelled. Move the inhalation into the belly, there should be a noticeable expansion of the stomach. Then purposely and fully exhale, make a noise and move it out of the mouth.
The big bad “P” word of exercise. Ask most anyone that avoids exercise why, and they will most likely respond “Because it hurts.”
In some ways these people are right, but they are using the wrong word to describe it to themselves. I am not trying to convince anyone that exercising will be an easy breezy experience. However, it is not true pain. Breaking bones, tearing ligaments and pulling tendons is pain. Car wrecks and child birth are pain. Doing some jumping jacks and squats are not true pain. They are a discomfort, they are uncomfortable but not painful.
One of the best things you can do to encourage a more mindful gym experience is learning to recognize the difference between the natural discomforts of exercise and true pain.
- If you experience pain/discomfort during an exercise describe it to yourself. Is it sharp, twinging, tearing pulling. These are bad pains or warning pains, and exercise should cease if they occur. Then there is achy, tight, stiff, burning (in the working muscles); these sensations can be felt during exercise and they are normal. Describing what you feel to yourself will create a better awareness of what is normal to your body and what isn’t. This generates more space to safely challenge your personal limits.
- The burning sensation experienced during the execution of an exercise is normal. Understand this pain is safe and endurable, and challenge yourself to mentally move focus away from this discomfort and more on execution, proper form, breath, and the tempo of the exercise.
- Bring attention back to the breath when you feel distracted by the “burning” sensation. Measure inhales and exhales with equal counts and remain focused on safely completing the set.
- Following each session, ask yourself how you feel after completing it. Not just physically but mentally. Conclude the session with a mental check in on your accomplishments that day rather than leaving feeling physically exhausted and beat down. End each work out this way. It will leave your last thoughts of the workout on a positive and motivational note, encouraging excitement to return, not dread.
Moving the perspective of exercise being painful to it being a rewarding physical challenge will generate countless benefits from your exercise sessions. You will feel more excited thus more motivated during sequential trips to the gym. You will improve your mental strength and personal limits, and you will find more genuine enjoyment from exercise.
Lastly, you want to keep the mind engaged and connected to the workout. You can accomplish this by implementing exercises in your routine that has one of, or a combination of these factors:
- Requires Balance
- Challenges core to maintain stability
- Has a patterned tempo
By sprinkling these throughout your workouts you will be more engaged, feel more confident in your physical capabilities, and maintain consistent focus during your sessions.
On the mindful level, with improved balance automatically comes a more genuine connection with the body. Learning balance requires you to “look” inwards. You must focus on how your body placement and muscles maintain balance, which generates a greater physical awareness that wasn’t present before. More balance means a better understanding of how your body moves.
Mindfulness in the gym is a great tool for improving the effectiveness of your workouts as well as building a better relationship between your mind and body. Improving your presence and awareness during exercise is going to pull even more benefits from each session. Not only will your physical body feel refreshed and rejuvenated, so will your spiritual body. Exercise is so much more than just physical movements, and I truly encourage you to give these practices a try.
If you want to see some examples on the kinds of exercises I suggested, check out the video that my fellow Personal Trainer Aaron Gray has made! (Insert link?)
About the Author:
Alex has her A.S in Exercise Science and is a certified Personal Trainer with the National Council on Strength and Fitness (NSCF) and the National Federation of Professional Trainers (NFPT). In June of 2016 she traveled to India to gain her 200 hr Yoga Teacher Certification. In Rishikesh she studied the ancient practice at its origins. Alex has spent time teaching yoga in Spain while volunteering at a yoga retreat, as well as teaching weekly classes in her hometown Sheridan, WY. She is currently practicing at PURENERGY Fitness where she also teaches a H.I.T.T inspired class three times a week. Alex wants to share with her clients and students the mental, physical and emotionally healing qualities of exercise and movement. She believes everyone should have a healthy relationship with their bodies and strives to thread that concept throughout her career.
1) Tom Scheve "Is there a link between exercise and happiness?" 22 June 2009.
HowStuffWorks.com. How Stuff Works 5 September 2017
2) "Mindfulness." Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 5 Sept. 2017