By Cheryl Jones, Director of Mindfulness at Aetna
When it comes to wellness, exercise is often the unsung hero. Regular exercise reduces the risk of disease and other unhealthy conditions, improves our mood, helps control body weight, improves sleep, and increases energy levels.
Over the past decade, there have been numerous studies showing how mindful meditation reduces stress. So, as an exercise physiologist and mindfulness teacher, I decided to combine the two for even greater impact. Here are some questions I am often asked.
What is mindful exercise?
Mindful exercise is about paying attention, in the present moment, to the experience of exercise through kindness and patience. You can think about exercise as physical activity, or as just plain movement.
Can you provide an example of mindful exercise in practice?
Try taking off the headphones and turning off the TV. See if you simply notice the sensations of breathing and moving. You might notice your heart rate getting faster, your body warming up, or perspiration. You may also be aware of your muscles working, pain, fatigue, or exhilaration.
How will it change the way I exercise now?
You’ll likely notice things about your body you’ve never noticed before, and be able to reduce your chance of injury. As you tune into your body you’ll take better care of yourself, in general. Mindful exercise is not “vanilla”, so to speak. It’s a way of moving that will help you create a sense of balance.
Are some exercises more conducive to mindfulness than others?
You can bring mindfulness into any physical activity or sport. Whether it’s going to the gym, walking around your neighborhood, golfing, gardening, or taking a yoga class. By the way, not all yoga is mindful. It’s not “what” you’re doing, it’s “how” you’re doing it.
What do I focus during mindful exercise?
You don’t need to focus, per se, on anything. It’s more of a gentle awareness of whatever is happening in your body, without criticism. You’ll likely notice thoughts and feelings, too. When your mind wanders off, realize what thought has drawn your attention away, and then bring your attention back to your breath and movement. If an emotion bubbles up, you should acknowledge whatever is true for you. Mindful exercise involves managing distraction and being aware of what is happening within you, and without self-judgment.
My exercise routines are so boring. Will that change?
Bringing mindfulness into an exercise routine can transform it into a practice of self-discovery, and for some a spiritual practice. You’ll learn how to access your inner stillness and connect with the wisdom of your body. As you tune into what your body needs, you’ll likely be more creative with your exercise routines. You may even be more open to trying different types of physical activity.
Will mindfulness change my exercise results?
If you’re doing any type of strength-training routine, mindful exercise will make your workouts more effective. Moving slowly and purposefully will help you become stronger, faster. Your workouts will be shorter because you’ll be doing less reps, and doing them more slowly. You’ll notice the difference between muscle pain and joint pain. You’ll learn to stretch but not overstretch, keeping your body safe.
What other changes might I notice?
Overall, you’ll be more tuned in to your own body and you’ll know yourself better. Your body will always tell you if something is a good idea or a bad one. If your body likes your choice, it will respond with relief. If it doesn’t, the body will tense up. You’ll be better able to manage or reduce stress and stressful thoughts that drain your energy level and keep you up at night. You’ll also be more in touch with your feelings and be able to regulate strong emotions so you can respond rather than react in stressful situations.
How will mindful exercise benefit my life?
Practicing patience and kindness with your body will spill over into other areas of your life. You’ll likely be more patient and kind to other people. The body’s capabilities change from day to day and mindfulness will enable you to be in a place of gratitude for whatever the body is capable of that day. You’ll learn to feel more grateful for the magnificence of your body regardless of size, age, or health status. As you focus on what’s right about your body you’ll focus more on what’s right about your life.