Welcome to an exploration of a powerful concept that can transform the way you approach exercise and mental wellbeing: mindfulness. Just like a secret ingredient that enhances the flavour of your favourite dish, mindfulness can be the key to unlocking a more fulfilling and beneficial exercise routine. In this article, we’ll delve into the simple yet profound concept of mindfulness and how it intertwines with physical activity to not only improve the body but also nurture one’s mental health.
There is an ever increasing focus on the link between mental health benefits from exercise and we are finding the reverse is also true. To get more out of our exercise, our mind should also be in the right place. This concept can help elevate our fitness regimes, and the role of a personal trainer can only enhance this.
So let’s do a dive into how we can harness mindfulness into exercise to get great results, improve our mental and physical health, and what to do when life just all gets a little too much!
Imagine you have a magical superpower that helps you focus all your attention on the present moment – that’s mindfulness. It’s like turning off your brain’s autopilot and really paying attention to what’s happening right now, without getting caught up in worries about the past or future. Jon Kabat-Zinn  describes mindfulness as “paying attention to a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally”.
The concept of mindful movement and exercise is not new. In fact it has been around in many exercise forms such as yoga and pilates and lays the foundation for their practice. We can use these techniques in all forms of exercise however and even in sport!
In the book “Full Catastrophe Living” by Jon Kabat-Zinn , there are seven factors that make up the major pillars of mindfulness practice:
This is the concept of living in the now and paying close attention to your thoughts. Try not to get caught up in opinions and ideas. Your mind may wander and this is ok, but don’t judge yourself for it. Rather acknowledge that it is wandering and bring your attention back to the present and your breath.
Good things take time and we must understand and accept that things will come when they are ready. Be patient with yourself and be open to the moment. Give permission to yourself to take time for mindfulness and see what comes rather than rushing and forcing to be somewhere else or better.
Don’t let the past hinder your present. Often we let past experiences and beliefs keep us from seeing what is actually happening right now. Look at things with a clear and uncluttered mind. Think of seeing things for the first time, like through the eyes of a child.
Trust yourself and your feelings. This is integral to both mindfulness and meditation. You may make mistakes along the way and that is ok but look inwardly for guidance and trust your intuition. Be open to what you learn from others also.
We are so set on a finish line or goal so often that we sometimes forget that ‘what will be will be’ is also fine. See and accept things as they are in their present moment. Embrace it and hold onto that awareness. Don’t react and try not to transition back to goal setting mode.
Sometimes things just are. Acceptance is allowing this without trying to change them. Accepting your current situation without wanting a different one or trying to change it allows us to be more aware of what we are experiencing at that time.
During this time, you may notice that you are paying attention to deeper experiences. The want to hold onto thoughts or experiences may be strong. Try to let these be what they are and not judge each one. Let it be and then let it go.
(adapted from “What are the 7 Principles of Mindfulness )
Utilising these pillars in your own or in clients fitness sessions can help bring the focus back to the issue at hand, the exercise ahead. This allows us/them to be present in the now and inwardly focus on the task ahead of them. This clarity can be powerful in achieving short term and long term goals, but there is a positive side effect. By decluttering the mind, we can also reduce the stress and anxiety that may be surrounding the individual and increase focus. Over time, these practices can help alleviate stress in day to day lives as well. What a great flow on effect!
An example of this is in a meta-analysis study by Marino et. al.  where mindfulness practices were introduced into individuals with cardiovascular disease. Multiple studies that were reviewed in this paper showed a positive effect of mindfulness, allowing for better coping mechanisms with psychological risk factors and improving physiological fitness.
Let’s now turn our attention to sport. The use of mindfulness in sport has been well documented for more than 20 years. In fact there is so much interest in it that there are more than 2500 scholarly publications on the use of psychology in sport . So what does it all say?
First let’s put ourselves in the shoes of an athlete. They are often required to perform under pressure, needing to make fast decisions for favourable outcomes. For this to happen, they need their ‘heads to be in the game’ and focused on the task ahead.
Athletes are just like us, with a life outside of their chosen sport that has just as many factors that impact them from day to day. This is where this research really starts showing the huge benefits of mindfulness and meditation to increase focus and be in the moment. The research goes beyond the psychological too. Gardner & Moore (2020) noted that there were also physiological changes to the brain when mindful and meditative practices were introduced, even in small doses .
The research found that mindfulness meditation activates specific parts of the brain related to focusing attention and managing emotions. Regular meditators have a different brain network compared to those who don’t meditate, allowing them to control negative emotions and make better choices . This suggests that mindfulness training can help people perform better under pressure not by avoiding the internal experience, but by improving their ability to respond thoughtfully to their thoughts and feelings .
We can take this evidence based approach with us into our practice within exercise too.
You have just finished a long day at work/school/university. There have been deadlines today, it’s Friday and you know you have to squeeze your gym session in before a family dinner at 8pm. You race to the gym thinking about everything else going on, except the gym session. You change, get into your work out, not focused on what you are doing and worrying about the work you have done and making dinner on time. Once done, you skip the cool down and stretches, and race home to get ready for dinner feeling deflated on a wasted gym session.
Does this sound familiar? Have you or a client been in a similar situation? So how can we change this around using mindful practice in our exercise routines? Well it’s practice. It takes time to be able to really establish good mindful practices but every little bit helps.
So let’s go through the previous scenario, but now apply mindful practice.
You have just finished a long day at work/school/university. There have been deadlines today, it’s Friday and you know you have to squeeze your gym session in before a family dinner at 8pm.
CHANGE: On your way to the gym, you accept what has been done today was the best you could have done in that time and accept it for what it is. Your focus now is on your fitness goals and getting the most out of your gym session before enjoying the social time.
You arrive at the gym and make a conscious effort to set your mind for the task you are presently going into. You clear your mind of the past and future, and focus on the present. What do I need to do for me right now – Warm up, run, lift…that is my focus.
You control your breathing with this task in mind and set an intention to follow for the next 30/45/60…minutes. Turn that attention inwards and work on what you are feeling and moving in your session.
You are not done until you have cooled down and stretched, using this time for gratitude for movement, appreciating the time that you have had to move with purpose and move towards your fitness goals. You are proud of turning up and getting it done. Now, social time!
This is the work of mindfulness in action using the pillars. Over time, this focus will become second nature and will increase your effectiveness in not just your workout but also other areas of your life. Mindful practices have been shown to reduce overall stress, anxiety and depression . So the next time you are in the gym, or your mind is overrun, take a moment to breathe and focus on this practice. Take note of how it makes you feel and the achievements you can make!
Remember, personal training is just that, PERSONAL. With this in mind, we want to ensure that our session caters to all of our clients’ needs at that specific time. While we consider their physical health and ask how their bodies are feeling before the session, taking note of recent injury or illness, we need to also think about their psychological state.
Personal trainers should be leading the charge to ensure that their clients are not only physically ok to exercise, but also mentally ok as well. This is where mindful practice can come into our business.
Take a moment to stop with your client prior to their session commencing. Sit them down and discuss how they are feeling today. Some areas to include are:
After understanding their current mindset, we can then assess how to proceed forward. Remember however, it is outside our scope of practice to discuss psychology, however we have a duty of care to ensure they are fit to train in this session.
Using the pillars and guided mindful practice, allow them to come into their gym routine and focus on their here and now. What are their goals for the session and how can we best support them to get them there.
Taking two to three minutes to set your client up for success will allow a much better outcome from the session. And they will feel much better for it.
This can be done for all clients too to help them get the best focus and stimulus from the workout. No matter the headspace of our clients prior to the session, slowing down and focusing on the needs of the session will have a much bigger impact.
The integration of mindfulness into exercise represents a powerful and transformative approach to enhancing both physical activity and mental well-being. Much like a secret ingredient that elevates the quality of a dish, mindfulness serves as a key element in unlocking a more fulfilling and effective exercise routine.
As the interconnectedness between mental health benefits and physical exercise gains prominence, it becomes evident that to optimise our workouts, our mental state should be accorded equal importance. By embracing the seven pillars of mindfulness individuals can recalibrate their focus, finding clarity in their present moment during exercise. This practice not only aids in achieving short and long-term fitness goals but also diminishes stress and anxiety, resulting in a ripple effect of improved overall well-being.
Furthermore, the application of mindfulness within sports further underscores its value, showing that it enhances focus, decision-making, and even induces physiological changes in the brain. This approach can be seamlessly woven into exercise routines, offering a means to reconnect with the present, redefine workout experiences, and foster a more profound connection between the mind and body. As personal trainers champion this concept, the profound impact on clients becomes evident, demonstrating that mindful practice not only optimises physical readiness but also nurtures psychological preparedness, ultimately promoting a holistic approach to health and fitness. Whether in individual workouts or guided training sessions, the fusion of mindfulness with exercise emerges as an indispensable tool for achieving remarkable results, enriching mental resilience, and maintaining equilibrium amid life’s demands.
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