By Lori Mang, Contributing Blogger
Lori Mang is a nationally certified personal trainer and health coach through the American Council on Exercise. She writes copy and content for the health and fitness industry. Visit her at www.baybreezewriters.com.
Scrolling through Facebook between bites of oatmeal at breakfast. Texting your friends between sets at the gym and going over tomorrow’s to-do list in Yoga class. Yacking on the phone with sis on your evening walk.
It should. It’s modern life. Being mindful is more challenging than ever. Cellphones, computers, social media, hundreds of cable channels, and streaming services chew up our time and energy. We have one mind doing a dozen things. It’s unnatural and unhealthy.
Research proves that anxiety and depression are increasing--especially among girls and women who consume social media daily. Pile on the world’s events over the past year, and we have a toxic stew draining our minds and emotions.
If you feel scattered and unable to meet your fitness goals--no matter how hard you try--mindfulness may empower you to finally meet those goals.
What is Mindfulness?
The Oxford dictionary defines mindfulness as:
- the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.
- a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.
Aside from phenomenal genetics, the thing that separates people with average fitness from excellent fitness is mindfulness. Professional athletes have been using the power of mindful behavior for decades.
When a hundredth of a second makes the difference between fame and fortune or working at the mall, professional athletes use mindfulness to beat the competition.
Professional volleyball player Kerri Walsh Jennings relies on time spent away from the game to not only hone her world-class skills but remaining in the present.
Practicing mindfulness is an integral part of her success. She knows the body alone can't win the gold. “If you just train the body, you're going to burn out. That's why it's so important to learn to be present,” she stated.
It’s unlikely you’ll have millions of dollars or a gold medal at the end. But maybe you want to get stronger. Or run a marathon. Perhaps you just want to lose a little weight and get your cholesterol under control.
Whatever your reason, mindfulness might be the missing piece to help you reach your fitness goals once and for all. For most of us, our mindfulness practice needs to be practical. We don’t have days to spend sitting on a mountaintop with a guru. We need tips and tricks we can put into practice today.
Mindfulness In Nutrition
Entire books have been written about mindful eating. Many focus on formal mindfulness and contemplation while eating. If you have time to spend an hour contemplating and eating your meals, that’s wonderful.
But most of us don’t. We need an informal way to stop eating mindlessly and simply enjoy our food. Here are some simple tips for doing that.
- Eat when your body tells you to. Listen for a growling stomach or feeling of low energy. If you suspect you want to eat for emotional reasons, wait.
- Only eat when eating. Put down the phone. Turn off the TV. Look at your plate. Enjoy the taste and sensation. Put your fork down between bites. This applies whether you’re eating by yourself or enjoying the company of others.
- If you want to go deeper into mindful eating, connect with the food. Is it nourishing your body? Where did it come from? Is it your mother’s recipe?
- Near the end of your meal, stop when your body tells you to. If you feel satisfied, stop. If there isn’t enough left to save, resist the urge to eat it so “it doesn’t go to waste.” You aren’t honoring your body by stuffing it with food it doesn’t want or need. It can either go to waste or waist--your choice.
Mindfulness at the Gym
There’s an overly friendly man to your right clad head-to-toe in orange spandex. Rowdy teens are on the weight machine next to you, and the latest breaking news story is on the TV above.
Unless you work out at home, having your attention pulled in multiple directions in the gym is a fact. Here’s where mindfulness pays. Strength gains start in the mind/muscle connection.
Start by setting a clear objective before you arrive. Plan your workout. When you walk into the gym, stride in with purpose and ignore distractions. Mentally go through your routine as you warm up.
When you feel distracted, take a deep breath and touch the muscle you’re working on. Feel how hard it is, flex it and see how it looks. When lifting weights, concentrate on the contraction. Does it feel too easy? Or is the muscle burning? Concentrate on rhythmic breathing.
If you’re on the treadmill, give it everything you’ve got for the next 3 minutes and pay attention to every breath, every stride. Feel your lungs. Appreciate your legs. Keep going.
Mindfulness in the gym doesn’t mean you can’t socialize or make friends. A sense of community is vital to our mental health. But it means you’re focusing on your muscles and your breathing.
You’re there anyway. You may as well be mindful--it doesn’t cost a thing or take any more time. And the benefits are firm muscles, a better workout, and a relaxed state of mind.
Mindfulness In Nature
According to a 2016 Neilsen Total Audience report, most Americans spend a whopping ten hours a day in front of a screen. The trend of city living coupled with increased screen time means spending less time outside.
Research shows this is bad for our mood and our health. Being exposed to nature by taking a tour around your neighborhood park, hiking in the woods, or walking along the beach has many positive effects such as:
- Improved attention to detail
- Lower stress levels
- Upswing in mood
- Lower risk of psychological disorders
- Higher levels of cooperation and empathy
- Improved memory
A 2015 study published in the International Journal of Wellbeing hypothesized that since our ancestors evolved, lived in, and relied on nature to survive, we have an inborn need to connect with nature. Researchers believe spending time in nature trigger parts of our brain that reduce stress and reinstate our ability to concentrate.
If you’re a time-strapped parent or business person, how can you take advantage of the healing powers of nature? It’s not hard. Even just a few moments in nature can restore a tired mind.
Walk or bike when going to work or running errands. Even in urban areas, you will hear birds chirping and see trees, flowers, and grass. If it’s impossible to walk or bike to work, drive with your windows down, feel the sun, listen for any sounds of nature, and admire colorful flowers and blooming trees.
To beat the afternoon blahs, get out during lunch for a ten-minute stroll through any green space around the office or at home. Don’t talk on your phone or scroll through social media. It’s ten minutes--and packed with benefits Instagram can’t provide.
If you can’t manage to get out, even the sights and sounds of nature inside are helpful. Bring a beautiful plant into your office. Download a soundtrack with nature sounds and take relaxing breaks through the day to meditate.
When you’re happy and relaxed with lower stress levels, it’s easier to stick to your nutrition and exercise plan and hit those goals.
Being Mindful Amid Chaos
When the sunshine and roses give way to the storm clouds and turmoil of life, it can feel overwhelming. Maybe it’s a nasty breakup, a challenging diagnosis, or losing a close friend. Your mind is full of chaos, pain, and negativity.
Too many people abandon their exercise and healthy eating when overwhelmed. Life isn’t easy, and you’d be in real trouble if you haven’t learned to prepare for discord by practicing mindfulness.
Mindfulness can aid in diffusing a charged situation, releasing tensions, and helping you concentrate. Many things are outside of our control. The sooner we realize and accept it, the sooner we can find our Zen and focus on the things we can control.
Step one is to pay attention to what’s going on and take a moment to breathe in and accept reality. Allow the emotions that have come to the surface. Face each pain point mentally and physically.
Second, write it down, followed by the worst potential outcomes and how that would impact you. By writing it out, you can take a situation to its conclusion detail by detail. Once there, you’ll gain a new perspective to further dilute your fears.
Next, take another breath and relax your body. Feel the tension leaving your scalp down to your neck and spine, through your limbs, and to the soles of your feet. Let every feeling find its place.
Mindfulness doesn’t change terrible circumstances, but it helps get to the root of your emotions so you can deal with them. You may need to show others compassion, or perhaps it's you who needs understanding. Mindfulness helps you remain present in the chaos and allows you to feel it, work through it, and diffuse it. The storms will come, but only for a season.
Mindfulness: The Missing Link For Your Fitness Goals?
If you’ve kept trying but failing to meet your fitness goals, take the lead of almost every elite athlete in the world--start practicing mindfulness. You don’t have to spend hours meditating or spend thousands of dollars.
It’s not an easy practice. It’s challenging to stay mindful. But the benefits to your mind and body are beyond dispute--and research proves it. In fitness or life--give yourself the gift of mindfulness.