Meditation studios and apps are popping up everywhere these days, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a top-level executive that doesn't incorporate meditation into their daily routine. Even athletes like the Olympic beach volleyball duo, Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh, use visualization and breathing techniques to help improve their performance.
But practicing these mindfulness techniques isn't just for the elite, it's for anyone who wants to maximize their efforts and experience a sense of calm during and after exercising.
So, What Are Mindful Workouts?
Mindfulness is best described in four words: a state of awareness. When applied to exercise, that means being fully present in any workout you're doing. No zoning out during Zumba, no autopilot on the elliptical. Every rep and every step matters.
"Bringing more awareness to your workout essentially means, rather than going through the motions you are becoming more present and aware of your movements and the way your body feels in a nonjudgmental way," says Corey Phelps, personal trainer and nutrition expert who teaches her clients mindful exercising.
"Showing up and going through the motions may get you some degree of a result, but showing up, connecting and maintaining a state of awareness will no doubt yield better, faster and more meaningful results," she says. And those results aren't just aesthetic, but a host of internal and external benefits that go beyond the gym.
Read more: 8 Easy Mindful Meditation Techniques
The Benefits of Mindful Workouts
There isn't a ton of research specifically addressing mindful workouts, but a February 2016 study published in Translational Psychiatry tested out a protocol called MAP (Mental and Physical) Training, which combined aerobic exercise with mindfulness meditation. Researchers found participants who exercised mindfully increased their ability to concentrate and decreased their "ruminative thought patterns" (a.k.a. obsessing and overthinking).
By practicing mindfulness in your workout, you become a more centered, aware and focused person carrying around less stress, Phelps says. "Visualization helps prepare you to perform at your peak and to tackle big goals."
In fact, a December 2014 study published in Motivation and Emotion found that those with narrowed their focus to the finish line walked faster and with more ease than those who looked around while walking.
What's more, located deep inside your brain is a network of neurons called the reticular activating system (RAS), and its primary function is to help your brain decide what information is relevant. A visualization practice tells your RAS that the things you're seeing in your mind's eye are important.
"In today's uber-connected world, we've become flooded with tons of information throughout the day (social media, email, texts, etc.), often causing our RAS to be overburdened," Phelps says. By flexing your RAS muscles via visualization before a workout, you take can maximize your efforts and results.
Mindfulness can also help you enjoy your workout more, according to September 2016 study published in the Journal of Health Psychology. And if your goal is weight loss, an August 2016 study from the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that women who practiced mindfulness were more active and experienced a greater decrease in their BMI than those who didn't.
Additionally, when you're not thinking about what you're going to make for dinner or who you need to email, you hone in on your form, making each exercise as effective as possible and reducing your changes of getting hurt. You may also find yourself slowing your strength-training workouts down, which increases your time under tension and helps your muscles grow stronger.
How to Be More Mindful in Your Workouts
Ready to put this technique into practice? Once you feel your mind relax yet your body strengthen by using these techniques, it may change the way you work out forever. Phelps explains how you can be mindful during your various sweat sessions.
- Begin in a seated position. Sit up tall and close your eyes.
- Begin first by noticing how your body feels and taking note of your breath. No judgments, just notice.
- Next, begin to breathe in deeply filling your lungs with air and exhaling out completely. After a few cycles of full breaths in and out begin to cycle the breath.
- Inhale for four counts, then pause for two counts.
- Exhale for seven and pause for two.
- Cycle the breath this way for 10 rounds.
- Allow the breath to return to normal.
Now, take a few moments to visualize the workout you're about to complete. Visualize in great detail the things you'll be doing. The muscles you'll be using. The effort you'll be putting in. The results you're working to achieve.
Imagine the strongest, best version of yourself you can conjure up. Take note of how this makes you feel physically and mentally. Let that feeling reach every corner of your body and memorize it. When you feel you are ready, open your eyes, and rock your workout!
As you embark on your run, set an interval timer to go off every 90 seconds.
- First, bring your attention to your breath. Notice the way it feels as it enters your noses, fills your lungs and how your body feels as you exhale out. Notice the rhythm and cadence.
- On the next 90-second cycle, notice the way your feet strike the ground and how your body feels. Notice the sensations, which muscles are working the most. Notice the rhythm and cadence of your stride.
- During the next 90 seconds, bring your attention to your core. Are you activating you abdominals?
- Continue to cycle through these little check ins for the duration of your run.
For each exercise in your weight-lifting workout, focus on bringing awareness to the muscle you're working. For example, during your biceps curl, how do your biceps feel? Are your elbows pinned to your sides or are you using momentum to swing the weights? Does your breath match the movement?
During your deadlifts, do you feel your hamstrings engage and are you squeezing your glutes at the top? Make sure to practice this sort of awareness during each exercise and soon mindful workouts will become second nature.
- Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Athletic Record
- "Mindfulness/Meditation Apps are everywhere these days"
- Interviewed: Corey Phelps is a D.C.-based NASM certified Personal Trainer and nutritional expert.
- Definition of mindfulness - American Psychological Association 2012
- RAS Systems in the brain - Benefits of mindfulness workouts