Words: Conan Marshall
It’s common to zone out while exercising, separating our mind from the physical activity at hand. A distracted mind can lead to negative thoughts which are detrimental to exercise.
It’s a well known fact that both exercise and mindfulness can improve your mental well-being, so why not combine aspects of mindfulness into your workout?
Mindfulness meditation, you may have noticed this phrase being thrown around online and in the media. In recent years there has been an explosion of apps such as Headspace promoting the use of mindfulness meditation to reduce stress and anxiety levels in your daily life. On social media, amongst friends and people I follow, I see more talk of mindfulness by the day.
Science has caught up with the centuries old practice of meditation, providing research on how beneficial it can be to take up mindfulness meditation. One of my previous articles, Mental Health Awareness: The use of running as therapy, argued the well-supported case that exercise is beneficial to the mind as well as the body. By combining aspects of mindfulness into your physical activity, you can combat distraction and bizarre thoughts leading to higher levels of endurance and a healthy mind.
I have personally noticed the benefits of practicing mindfulness - the process of bringing one’s attention to experiences in the present moment, to become a non-judgmental observer of your own thoughts and emotions. To some, this talk of meditation will lead to scepticism. I can assure you that this isn’t a promotion of pseudo-spirituality or new age beliefs that unfortunately haunt this subject.
There is nothing unearthly or mysterious about mindfulness. To put it simple, it’s about reaching a state of clarity without the distraction of negative (or positive) thoughts. Like any skill, consistent practice is important and in this case, leads to a higher degree of coherency. It’s about training yourself to quiet your mind, meaning less regrets, judging, worrying or hoping.
The more you practice, the stronger your mindfulness will become. Practicing ten minutes a day has been shown to develop a state of mind that reduces pain and stress while improving cognitive function. There’s evidence that consistent practice leads to changes in levels of grey matter density in the brain.
One book that I must recommend is the New York Times bestseller, Waking Up. It’s author, Sam Harris, is an American neuroscientist and philosopher.
He is my best example of a writer who takes a secular approach to understanding spirituality (which is most important) outlining the science behind the mystery of consciousness, the ‘riddle’ of the self and meditative practices. You will find all these topics being discussed in detail on his podcast Waking up, found on his website.
Mindfulness and exercise
The thought of combining mindfulness meditation with a physical activity like running might sound like a colossal contradiction. This isn’t the case. Much can be applied from traditional mindfulness mediation into your exercise.
The term mindful exercise has become an indistinct phrase used by different people to mean different things. To sum it up, it’s the idea of exercising with clarity and being fully present in the moment without the involuntary distractions of thought; something which everyone experiences in every moment of their lives without consciously realising. Becoming a bystander to your thoughts and solely focusing on the present moment sounds like a simple thing to do yet it takes practice.
The increasing popularity of mindful exercise has led to sports brands jumping on board. Nike have partnered with Headspace to create the Nike+ Run Club app. While ASICS created an on-site experiment called the “blackout” track, a race track that helps athletes train their minds by running in complete darkness.
There’s a large amount of published research which supports mindful exercise. In 2015, a study published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine found that mindful activity can have a “profound effect on physical and mental health”. With sustained practice, it has been shown to improve self-efficacy. The physical benefits include improved breathing depth, heart rate and aids the nervous system.
Another study in 2016 found that mindful aerobic exercise helped with cognitive function and enhanced brain activity. This research shows the individual benefits of exercise and meditation for depression while highlighting that a combination of the two can be ‘particularly effective’ as a treatment.
Finally, in a study from the University of California, it was found that mindfulness can increase endurance. Navy SEALS and elite athletes were monitored while a group of SEAL recruits had undergone an eight-week mindfulness course. Brain scans showed that these recruits had begun to develop similar brain patterns to the experienced SEALs and athletes.
To apply mindfulness to running or cycling, I would recommend getting rid of distractions like music. This might be controversial, but it might be beneficial to lay off obsessions with your smart watch or Strava progress. Maybe limit your time spent looking at your watch to before and after a workout.
Keep in mind that running and cycling brings many distractions and obvious hazards. Concentrate on asking yourself two questions: “What’s in front of me?” and “How is my breathing?”. It’s nearly impossible to stay 100% present and focused, don’t stress if you find yourself in a fog of thought, just calmly return your mind to these two questions.
I am by no means an expert on mindfulness, just someone who has noticed the benefits since trying it out myself. To find out more about mindfulness meditation I would strongly recommend visiting https://samharris.org/.
I’ll be sure to delve into this topic more, exploring mental toughness, mindfulness and mental well-being in future posts.
Follow me on Instagram & Twitter: @conanmarshall
F. Zeidan et al 2011. “Brain Mechanisms Supporting the Modulation of Pain by Mindfulness Meditation.
K. Johnson, B. J. Diamond, Z. David and P. Goolkasian. 2010. “Mindfulness Mediation Improves Cognition: Evidence of Brief Mental Training”.
B. K. Holzel et all. 2011. “Mindfulness Practice Leads to Increase in Regional Brain Gray Matter Density.”