When you’re pushing yourself physically—at the gym or during an outdoor adventure like a particularly grueling hike—it’s common to want to distract yourself or disassociate. After all, isn’t that most of us have music blasting in our earbuds during these times? To pump ourselves up and distract from the pain and fatigue?
But there’s something to be said for staying present during these times. There are actually a lot of benefits to mindfulness—especially during workouts. Being mindful while you exercise has been proven to reduce stress and manage pain while boosting your mood and even improving your performance.
After all, when you aren't focused on what you're doing, you can almost sleepwalk through it. You might skip some of the pain, yes, but then you often lose the sense of satisfaction of a job well done at the end. Not to mention, your mindless workouts may not be as effective either. Think about it. When you're in a rush to get through exercise, how careful are you with your form? And that sloppy form will no doubt lead to less gains and more pain.
This is why coaches, doctors and athletes alike all swear by using mindfulness and meditation to enrich your athleticism. With a clear, focused mind, you’re not only able to make quick decisions in say a pick-up basketball game, but experts say that bringing awareness to your body and breath shifts the focus of any activity from the outcome—be it winning a race or increasing your personal best deadlift— to the actual movement, which makes it more enjoyable and makes you more conscious of what you’re doing. Think about it this way: The opposite of mindfulness is like being on autopilot. Simply doing what you’ve always done (without much thought or intention) is only going to bring you the same outcomes. So, snap out of autopilot mode and start bringing your awareness to your body and breath.
It Calms You
Several recent studies have found that when mindfulness was combined with exercise, participants showed improvements in stress, depression and anxiety. Without all that stress and negative feelings, you’re able to improve focus and clarity, which in turn helps you stick to your plan and reach your goals—both in the gym and in life. It also means you’re kinder to yourself if you miss a workout or fall short of a personal record, allowing you to get back on track.
It Helps You Set Intentions
The good thing about the repetitive nature of meditation is it helps cement your intentions in your mind and actions. Research has found that people have increased levels of satisfaction when engaged in mindful fitness, especially if they've previously had a tough time sticking to a regular workout routine. Mindfulness encourages us to be aware—moment to moment—which helps us realize that any time is a good time to workout. And when we’re being active, we’re present so we get the most from that activity.
It Boosts Your Physical Health
A more mindful connection to your physical activity will almost immediately boost your physical health. One, because you’ll just give more effort when you’re mentally plugged in. But from a more scientific standpoint, mindful exercise will not only help you get to sleep, but sleep more soundly. That alone will improve your overall health, but a slew of research connects mindfulness with increased cardiovascular health. One recent study found that people who practiced mindfulness had lower body mass index (BMI) and fasting glucose (blood sugar) levels.
It Lets Your Find Your Flow
The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who first coined the term flow, defined it in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.” If you’re able to bring the benefits of meditation into your movement, you’ve probably experienced this—even if just for a brief moment. On the basketball court, for instance, the basket may seem to get bigger and time slows down when you’re in flow state. While meditating before or during exercise can’t guarantee flow, it will definitely establish the conditions for attaining it, Csikszentmihalyi says. That’s because it will bring you inner clarity, intense focus and a sense of serenity.
* How to: Ready to incorporate more mindfulness into your routine? Finding flow takes some work, but the key is to concentrate on what is happening here and now. As your mind wanders, redirect your attention back to your body and your breath. Notice each time your foot strikes the pavement on a run, for instance. Or when strength training, consciously focus on how each muscle engages as you lift the weights.