Mindfulness and Exercise

"Mindfulness” has been a dominant health and wellness trend over the last couple of years – the word gets thrown around in conversations about everything from eating to shopping. But what does mindfulness really mean, and how does it relate to physical activity?

Psychology Today defines mindfulness as  “a state of active, open attention on the present. When you're mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.”

So, why is it important to have “active, open attention” and to be able to “observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance”? As it turns out, this ability leads to a whole host of other mental health benefits:

•    Fewer depressive symptoms
•    Reduction in stress
•    Better working memory
•    Better focus
•    Less emotional reactivity
•    More cognitive flexibility
•    Greater relationship satisfaction
•    Better fear modulation
•    Greater self-insight

One of the best-known ways to become more mindful is to adopt the practice of mindfulness meditation, which encourages you to concentrate on your breath, body and surroundings for a designated period of time, usually while sitting comfortably with your eyes closed. At 99% Fit we were also excited to learn that there are a few ways you can integrate mindfulness into some common physical activities.  For Dummies has some great, simple ideas for how to make running, swimming, and cycling opportunities not just for improving physical fitness, but mental fitness as well:

•    Running: leave the music at home (a tough one for me, I’ll admit!) and run outside so your senses have more to take in. Pay attention to your breathing, how your body feels, and your surroundings – the temperature, the pavement, the wind on your face. Observe any thoughts that arise calmly and without judgment
•    Swimming: as with running, pay attention to your breathing, your heart rate, your body, etc. Also, observe the sensation of your body moving through the water, and how it feels
    Cycling: Take note of how your body feels on the bike, especially points of contact like your hands and feet. When you start cycling, pay attention to the movement of your legs and the wind against your face. Try not to think too much about where you’re going; think about where you are in the moment. 

Anything that helps exercise enhance mental wellness in addition to physical fitness is obviously positive – but not just for the here and now. These benefits help us in the near term, but are also the building blocks for a long, fruitful, and healthy life. 

Your Brain on Fitness

For most of the fitness industry’s existence, the physical benefits of exercise have been touted. While those remain important, a growing body of research has catalyzed an exciting conversation about the mental benefits of exercise. The last few years have shown us that regular physical activity can make our bodies AND our brains much healthier and happier. Consider the following thorough (but incomplete) list of cool things exercise can do for your body’s super computer:

 

·      Regular exercise has been show to increase concentrations of norepinephrine in the brain –- a really important neurotransmitter that helps the brain cope with stress. So more exercise = less stress 

·      Physical activity has also been shown to help alleviate the symptoms of clinical depression. Just moving your body around has the capacity to make you happier. 

·      Exercise can also help keep your brain in shape throughout old age – and prevent some of the cognitive decline we all assume happens when we get older. Studies have shown that people who exercise have less brain shrinkage and decay in white matter (two components key in brain function) in advanced age.

·      Since most of us are knowledge workers these days, this one’s especially important – if you’re facing writer’s block or are just generally creatively stumped, exercise can get those juices flowing again. Some research has shown that people who exercise can access an increased boost in creativity for up to two hours after completion of a workout 

·      Another important one for anyone stuck behind a desk for most of the day: physical activity can have amazing effects on your professional output. Research has shown that employees who walk at least 10,000 steps a day report boosts in energy, productivity, and job satisfaction (probably why all our FitBits and JawBones tell us to walk that many steps!) 

 

Physical activity has the power to improve virtually every aspect of our lives. The important thing to keep in mind is that exercise should be used in service of our goals – it’s a tool to help us get where we want to go. Whatever our dreams or demands happen to be – battling the blues, finishing a memoir, tackling tough client demands – exercise can improve and hone our abilities to accomplish those things. Because exercise has the ability to better our minds, by extension is has the ability to help us hone our identities – our overall sense of who we are, and who we want to become.