We tend to do anything to distract ourselves during a workout. Maybe you watch reality TV on the treadmill, hike with your headphones on, or rehash your to-do list as you cycle. Hey, no shame—you deserve a round of applause just for breaking a sweat!
But according to experts, dropping the diversions and adopting a more mindful approach to fitness can pay off big-time—for your body and your brain.
No, we’re not talking about sitting cross-legged and om-ing in the middle of the weight room (though if you’re so inclined, go for it). That’s more of a straight-up meditation practice. Mindfulness while working out is about cultivating present-moment awareness. And when we become fully engaged in the act of exercising, we not only improve our physical results but, research has found, we can also boost our appreciation and enjoyment of the experience—which could ultimately help us stay committed to a fitness routine long-term.
All this said, focusing on the here and now is challenging (especially when you’re working hard and wish you could fast forward to a shower). Luckily our wellness coaches and mental health pros have plenty of tips and tricks to make it a little easier.
Yoga teachers often talk about centering yourself at the start of class. Try that before your other workouts, too, by pausing to take a few deep belly breaths. “As you inhale, imagine that your breath is carrying particles of concentration into your body. As you exhale, notice that all the distractions and stress are drifting away,” says sports psychologist JoAnn Dahlkoetter, PhD, author of Sports Psychology Coaching for Your Performing Edge. “The incoming breath is like a sedative that supplies you the peace you need to focus on the present.”
Bringing your attention to the activity (whether it’s boxing or erging) can make it easier to reach a “flow” state, which is when you’re completely immersed in the workout. Once that happens, the workout’s perceived level of difficulty decreases, and you actually perform better, explains Nike master trainer Joe Holder, founder of the Ocho System.
You might also try setting an intention pre-workout, says Sarah Romotsky, head of health and science strategy at Headspace, an app-based mindfulness company. It could be something simple, like “I’m grateful for my body’s ability to move” or “Show self-kindness.”
Specifically, process-oriented goals. Say you’re running a race or trying to hit a certain mileage—those are called outcome goals; process goals are the steps you take that help you get there. These might include perfecting your technique, setting your pace, or honing your mental attitude. Process goals direct your focus to what you’re doing in the moment, says Dahlkoetter.
Just make sure you aren’t so fixated on any one goal that you can’t adapt as conditions change. Dahlkoetter puts it this way: At the starting line of a race, you need to widen your focus to manage all that’s happening around you. By the middle of the race, you can be really attuned to your form and your breathing. In the final stretch, you may need to narrow your focus: All your energy should probably be centered on putting one foot in front of the other till you make it to the finish line. Knowing which goals to focus on when will serve you well.
Try not to zone out
That doesn’t mean you should never crank up your power song mid-workout. In fact, research shows that dissociation—or putting your mind elsewhere—can sometimes be helpful. But there are also benefits to going distraction-free. “When people are truly engaged, they are physically and measurably able to do so much more than when they are checked out,” says Bethany Lyons, founder and CEO of Lyons Den Power Yoga.
It makes sense that when your mind is wandering, your performance can suffer. If you’re mentally singing along with Beyoncé—or ruminating about last night’s argument, or rehearsing tomorrow’s pitch—you won’t be focused on keeping form, which means you’re probably not moving as efficiently as possible, and you’re more likely to get hurt.
Catch yourself spacing out? “Bring your attention back to what you’re doing,” says Shirley Archer, a mindful-living coach and author of Pilates Fusion: Well-Being for Body, Mind and Spirit. “The more you practice that mental shift, the easier it will become.” Think of it like flexing your mental muscle. Then, check in with your body. Ask yourself, “What am I feeling, hearing, seeing, right now?”
Picture yourself fitter
Seriously, visualization is a powerful tool. Consider a 2014 study involving folks whose forearms were immobilized in an elbow-to-wrist cast for four weeks. Study participants who visualized themselves flexing their wrists during this time frame lost 50 percent less strength than their non-visualizing counterparts. Now imagine what visualization can do for you when it comes to your fitness challenges. Before your next workout, you might envision yourself running up that monster hill on your route without stopping, or you might fantasize about pushing a heavier weight on the prowler. Athletes use this mind trick to build the brain-body connection before big events, says Dahlkoetter. “The more you mentally rehearse your plan, the more automatic it will become and the less thought will be required in the moment.”
Watch what you think
Whatever your brain is saying, your body believes. As a result, self-talk is a key ingredient for success or failure, says Nicole Detling, PhD, a mental-performance coach and the owner of HeadStrong Consulting. So instead of thinking about how much your workout is going to suck and how you’ll never be able to finish it, replace those negative thoughts with positive ones. Archer suggests repeating affirmations. Tell yourself “I love a challenge!” or “I’m going to crush this workout!” she says. And odds are, you will.
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