An intuitive antidote to diet culture, the concept of mindful eating started getting attention a few years ago. Now, mindful exercise has followed suit, challenging us to change the way we approach moving our bodies in order to have a better relationship with working out. (Oh, and have safer, more effective workouts, too.)
Here, mindfulness and fitness experts break down what mindful exercise is all about, why you need it in your life, and how to really tune in while you sweat.
So, What Is Mindful Exercise, Exactly?
First, let’s talk mindfulness. Bethany Lyons, founder and CEO of Lyons Den Power Yoga explains mindfulness as “a type of meditation where you are incredibly in—and intentional with—this moment, in your body.” Simply put, it’s being right here, right now.
So, mindful exercise is any type of movement you bring that level of awareness to. “It’s being focused on where you are, the movements you’re performing, and how you feel in your body as you do them,” explains trainer Rachel MacPherson, C.P.T.
Basically, mindful exercise is the opposite of riding the stationary bike while reading a book, walking your dog while on your phone, or exercising just to check it off your to-do list, says Lyons.
Many think only slower-paced, more ethereal classes like yoga or pilates can qualify as mindful exercise. However, according to Carol Ferkovic Mack, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., owner of CLE Sports PT & Performance in Cleveland, OH, that’s not true. “Any exercise—running, weight lifting, strength training, and even the most intense CrossFit class—can be mindful exercise, if you take a mindful approach.”
The Benefits Of Mindful Exercise
“Bringing mindfulness to any exercise makes it more efficient, more effective, and safer,” says Lyons. “I’d rather someone exercise mindfully for 15 minutes than on autopilot for 90.”
Take a classic biceps curl, for example. “Before you start curling the weight you need to get in proper position,” Lyons says. “Make sure your feet are positioned underneath your hips, engage your core and tuck your ribs, become aware of your breath, neutralize your neck, and focus on a specific point in the distance.”
Now that you’re set up properly, focus on initiating every rep from your bicep, as opposed to from your elbow or hips, she says.
Sound tedious? Guess what: “Curling with this kind of intention and mindset gives you way more bang per bicep curl,” says Lyons. Everything from placing your feet in the right position, to properly engaging your core, to focusing on the bicep muscle itself allows your body to recruit as many muscle-fibers as possible. The result? Greater gains long-term.
Move without being mindful, though, and you increase your risk of moving sub-optimally, which increases your risk of injury in the long-term. “If you exercise without mindfulness, you’re asking for injury just as much as someone walking down a pothole-littered street while staring at their phone,” says Lyons.
Being mindful during high-intensity training also gives you the awareness and permission to stop if you start to feel dizzy or nauseous, or experience pain, MacPherson adds.
Plus, exercising mindfully offers all the other science-backed benefits of mindfulness, including reduced stress, lower blood pressure, improved sleep quality, and overall better mental health, says Dr. Alex Tauberg D.C.,C.S.C.S., E.M.R., owner of The Pittsburgh Chiropractic.
How To Exercise Mindfully
Now that you know that exercising mindfully doesn’t require swapping a barbell for a yoga mat, you’ll be psyched to know that it’s easier to incorporate into your workout routine than you might think.
1. Start During Your Warm-Up
You know warm-ups are essential for maximizing gains and minimizing injury risk—but don’t just go through the motions.
“Move with intention,” says Lyons. “Pay attention to how your joints feel as you take them through their full range of motion; tune into your muscles.”
The more in-tune with your body you are during your warm-up, the better you can prepare it for your workout.
2. Focus On Your Breath
There’s no one right way to breathe while you’re exercising; how you breathe depends on what you’re doing. Instead of worrying about breathing “right,” just be aware of your breath.
“Are you holding your breath? Breathing like a gerbil or pitbull? Are you even aware of the fact that you’re breathing?” asks Lyons. Ask yourself these questions regularly throughout your workouts.
If you’re breathing really heavily, try to lengthen your exhale, which can help bring your heart rate back to normal, Lyons recommends.
3. Set An Intention For Your Workout
To infuse a bit of mindfulness into HIIT and CrossFit classes, Mack recommends picking one thing to focus on.
“Maybe your goal is to keep a steady pace from start to finish during your bootcamp class,” she says. “Or, maybe it’s to cut down on transition time between movements in a CrossFit workout. Maybe it’s just to reset your back before every single deadlift.”
Whenever you feel your focus drifting, simply return to this intention.
4. Start From The Bottom
This one is especially helpful during resistance training. “You have to start at the base,” says Lyons. “If your feet are haphazardly placed, you won’t have a good foundation.” Without a good foundation you won’t move as well, regardless of the movement.
When beginning a lift, check the distance between your feet and the angle of your toes. Then, grip the ground with your toes.
Next, work your way up your body. Correct the position of your hips, lower-back, core, and neck. “Most of us set up for an exercise with our neck arched forward,” says Lyons. Make sure it’s aligned with your spin before moving.
Finally, find a point to focus your eyes on. “If your eyes are wandering, your mind is wandering—so just focus on something,” Lyons says. Maintain a soft, focused gaze, which will calm your nervous system and keep you aware throughout the movement.
5. Put Away The Tech
“The phone is one of the biggest hurdles between you and quality movement,” says MacPherson. If there’s a TV on your cardio machine, power it down; if you’re wearing a smartwatch that has email and text notifications, turn them off; if you’re using your phone to track your mileage, turn on airplane mode.
You’ll be surprised at how much more enjoyable your exercise routine is without all the chatter.
6. Take Up Yoga Or Tai Chi
There’s a reason the term “mindful exercise” makes you think of yoga. “Yoga itself is true mindful exercise,” says Lyons. “It will help you bring mindfulness to all your other forms of exercise.”
If you’re not into yoga, try Tai Chi, another innately mindful form of movement. (Every movement is done with purpose and you’re supposed to focus on your body at all times.)
Unsurprisingly, “it’s been shown to reduce stress, improve mood, and even lessen depression,” says Tauberg.. And bonus: It’s something that people of all ages and athletic abilities can enjoy.
7. Be Patient
“The mindfulness muscle isn’t built in a day,” says Lyons. “It’s a skillset that you grow and develop over many years.”
If your mind wanders, gets off track, or you realize you haven’t made sure you’re bracing your core before every lift, don’t sweat it.
Ultimately, being able to direct yourself back to the present after your mind wanders—or you’ve been on autopilot—is the magic of mindfulness at work. “The more you train it, the better you get,” says Mack.