Increasing one’s level of fitness is a goal most people have considered or are actively pursuing. From the college point guard hoping for a shot at the WNBA to the working father of two who yearns to find more time to train for a 5k, better fitness is part of most people’s ideal picture of what it looks like to live a better life, and while more intensive physical training is certainly an important part of that overall picture, how you think and feel while you train is just as essential.
Mindfulness — the intentional practice of focusing your awareness on the moment at hand without judgment — has long been touted in both sports and life, but it isn’t just elite athletes or elite yogis who benefit. Increasing your ability to pay attention really can lead to better fitness and a higher quality of life, regardless of your personality type or current fitness level.
The Practice of Mindfulness
Becoming more mindful is like learning to play the piano: it takes practice, and the more you practice, the better you’re likely to get at it. Unlike playing the piano, however, paying attention to your feelings thoughts, bodily sensations, emotions, beliefs and more in each passing moment is made more difficult by the stressful, busy environment in which most 21st century Americans find themselves, but it isn’t impossible. Start by considering the following:
- Aim at more self-awareness. What kind of person are you? What’s your personality type? What desires motivate you? What fears hold you in check? What are your positive qualities? Your negative ones? How would your partner, your co-workers, your family and friends answer these questions about you? Make an inventory of what you know about who you are and how you operate, and then start to notice yourself and your personality in action in life and fitness. Self-knowledge — especially without judgment — will help you reach your goals.
- Notice your breath. One of the most useful tools toward increased mindfulness — whether during meditation or a race — is becoming more aware of your breathing. Without altering it in any way, simply begin to notice your breath. Sit still, and focus your attention on your inhale and exhale a few times throughout the day.
- Set aside time for practice. Mindfulness is a simple concept and strategy, but it literally requires practice. Start small at first, and set aside ten minutes in the morning when you can be undisturbed. Sit in a comfortable position, and starting with your attention on your breath, begin to notice the other sensations happening in your body. Notice the thoughts that race through your mind. Notice the temperature of the room, the feel of the chair against your back, the sounds of the world outside your window. While it won’t seem like much, this daily practice will increase your awareness in a way that will pay big dividends in your workouts.
Mindfulness in Exercise
A study conducted by researchers at the Stanford University of Medicine found that the simple act of wearing a pedometer increased how much a person walked in a day, leading to much better overall fitness, weight loss and improved blood pressure compared to people who stayed pedometer-less. How could this be so? While the researchers aren’t entirely sure of how the simple act of wearing a pedometer could yield such positive results, a good possibility is that simply wearing a pedometer throughout the day increases a person’s awarenessof their physical activity level, and because most people want to be more fit, that increase in awareness leads to more activity.
In the same way, practicing mindfulness — in your living room or during a workout — will help you become more aware of your internal state and how your body feels so that you can make decisions that are more in line with your goals. While it can be tempting to believe that it’s only during your workout that you’re building fitness, the reality is: human beings are much more integrated than that. From nutrition and sleep to stress levels and overall quality of life, everything you do and don’t do contributes to how well you can run, jump, bike or hold your downward dog pose.
Mindfulness, because it’s a training and a practice that hones your skills of self- and other-perception will open your awareness up to your entire life, making it possible to achieve greater fitness in a way that is much more holistic than simply putting your body through the exercise paces.
Don’t just run harder and cut back on empty calories. Better fitness is a whole mind, body and spirit game. By incorporating the practice of mindfulness, you will find yourself fitter, happier, more relaxed and more engaged in the life you’re living.