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Natural Awakenings National

Mind-Body Fitness: How Mindfulness Benefits Workouts

Nov 27, 2020 09:30AM ● By Marlaina Donato
Practicing mindfulness to benefit exercise workouts

katerina jerabkova/

When mindfulness approaches are applied to fitness training—which can be as simple as breathing consciously and tuning into subtle body sensations—the results can be fewer injuries, improved immunity, a lowered stress response, a brighter mood and a deeper commitment to staying fit. Being in the present moment can also spark enjoyment.

Research shows that mindfulness training can also significantly raise self-esteem, and women that cultivate meditative self-compassion experience a boost in acceptance of and satisfaction with their bodies.

“In nature, the bigger the eye of the storm, the more powerful the winds, suggesting that our workout potential and enjoyment is dependent not on how hard we push, but how calm and self-aware we can be,” says John Douillard, DC, author of Body, Mind, and Sport and the founder of LifeSpa, in Boulder, Colorado. “Slowing down and being aware of the body allows the mind to attend to muscles, which can increase blood supply, lymph drainage and replace a potentially damaging fight-or-flight response during a workout with a rejuvenating parasympathetic response.”

Tapping into Contentment

Mindful fitness instructor Ellen Barrett, in Washington Depot, Connecticut, offers clients a full-body experience with a fusion of movement forms and weight training. “We think mindfulness is some sort of yoga thing, but everything can become mindful. Jumping jacks and biceps curls can be mindful. It’s not the movement, but the awareness behind the movement. Mindfulness is about being present.”

Adding in balance training, tai chi and Pilates, and swapping a bit less time on the treadmill for a few moments of meditation or visualizing positive results can go a long way, say fitness experts. Debbie Rosas, founder and co-creator of Nia—a body-mind conditioning program anchored in martial arts and modern dance—underscores the importance of listening to cues. “Notice any areas that feel tight, blocked, rigid and bound. This wisdom through felt sense and awareness will immediately alert you to stop, adjust and slow down.”

The Portland-based co-author of The Nia Technique points to the fun factor. “I believe that when you stop exercising and start moving, anything you do can bring you enjoyment. Do things that leave you feeling successful and motivated to do them again.”

Breath as a Compass

Practicing conscious breathing fortifies the positive impact of exercise and can prevent injuries like hernias that can arise when the breath is held during heavy lifting. “One of the most powerful tools for mindfulness during a workout is following your breath. Mindfulness is the key, but it’s hard to be mindful when you’re breathing 26,000 times a day into the upper chest, activating a fight-or-flight response,” says Douillard.

Breathing through the nose instead of the mouth during exercise bolsters mindfulness, and as Douillard has demonstrated in studies, causes brain waves to shift from stressed beta waves to a meditative alpha state. “It takes longer to fully inhale and exhale during nose breathing, which creates a baseline of calm,” she says. “Don’t rush. Be aware of the body breathing and feel each muscle contracting and relaxing with each rep and stretch.”

Chicago-based fitness expert Stephanie Mansour, host of the PBS weekly Step it Up with Steph show, concurs. “Sync your breath with your movement. Mindfully transition from exercise to exercise.” Mansour also suggests working out next to a mirror to improve alignment and avoiding the distraction that can come with having a workout buddy. “Another trick to improve form is to put on headphones and zone out by listening to white noise so that you have no distraction,” she says.

Exercising with deep body-presence is something we do for ourselves. “If you’re really paying attention, you can steer yourself towards invigoration and away from irritation. The body is always providing feedback, but we’re often too ‘out of body’ to notice. Giving full attention to your body is a big gift of self-love,” says Barrett.

“Breathe. Move. Be free,” adds Mansour. “This is your dedicated ‘me’ time and you can use it to feel good about yourself.”

Marlaina Donato is an author and composer.

More Helpful Tips

Body scan from Ellen Barrett: 

Establish a body scan ritual before working out. Either sitting or standing, close your eyes and take a second or two to focus on each part of the body with your mind’s eye. Start with the feet and then move up to the ankles, legs, spine, etc. 

Nasal breathing from John Douillard: 

Establish a comfortable, slow, nasal breathing rhythm in the beginning of your workout and try to maintain that throughout your practice. Give it time. It will take about three weeks of nose breathing practice to begin to run at the same pace or lift the same weight as you did before as a fight-or-flight mouth breather. 

To begin: Breathe deeply in and out through the nose with each rep on the weight machine and lengthen your nasal breathing during cardio [workouts]. As soon as your nasal breath rhythm begins to speed up or you have to open your mouth to breathe, slow down and reestablish a comfortable rhythm of nasal breathing again. Once the mindful calm has been reset, begin to increase your intensity, letting the nose breathing set the pace.

Breathing tip from Stephanie Mansour:

Inhale on the easier movement and exhale on the more challenging movement. For example, inhale as you bend down into a squat and exhale as you press up to standing.

Pull your belly button in toward your spine in all workouts. Engage your core whether you’re working your legs, arms, back or chest.

Workout advice from Debbie Rosas:

Do some research if you are new to working out. Go online and look for a teacher you feel aligned with in philosophy and workout approach.

Build slowly. Exercise teachers are trained to inspire you. Their inspiration can push you. Always do less than what you see and build when your body says, “I am ready for more. Let’s move faster and in a larger range of motion.”
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