The Art of Mindful Movement - How Mindfulness Can Help You Learn to Love Exercise

Learn how mindful movement, the act of practicing mindfulness while working out, can help you find joy in exercise and moving your body. 


My husband is the most zen person I know. He never stresses about the future unless there is something he actually should be looking ahead to and stressing about. Even then, it's not really stress. More like intense contemplation. And he doesn't even have to do meditation or yoga or read self help books to live so in the present moment. It's just how he is.

I know, what a jerk.

A few months ago, a woman ran past us while we were out walking the dogs. As she approached, Scott shushed me. We walked in silence as she ran past us, me with a confused look on my face. After she passed, he explained to me that the sound of feet hitting the pavement was one of his favorite noises. He told me how when he goes running, sometimes he'll turn off the music just to listen to himself. Seriously, who is this guy? 

His comment really stuck with me. I always think of yoga for building mindfulness and that ever elusive mind-body connection. But some people just aren't in to yoga. It also made me think how distracted I usually am when I run runs. Temptation bundling and listening to podcasts while running got me out the door, into the habit, and helped me learn that yes, I can run more than a mile without dying. Now I realize I could be getting more out of it.

Science shows the benefits of incorporating mindfulness into your workout routine. While most people think of weight loss as a motivator for exercising, studies show it isn't as motivating as you might think. In fact, using weight loss as a motivator often backfires and actually can lead to weight gain.

What studies do show is the most effective motivator is learning to enjoy exercise, or movement, for how it makes you feel. This is where mindfulness comes in.

Most people think of exercise as uncomfortable, so fully immersing yourself in it may seem counterintuitive. But mindfulness helps you get used to the discomfort and so it feels less scary.

For example, I hate to plank. Whatever that muscle is that lets you hold a plank, I'm pretty sure I don't have it. But in Pure Barre, we have to do it for 90 seconds. Oy vey. On days I'm feeling distracted or anxious, those 90 seconds seem more like 90 minutes. I curse myself and drop out before we're a quarter of the way through. But I've learned that when I'm feeling less anxious and can focus on the sensation of planking, as uncomfortable as it is, I can hold it for the full 90 seconds. While I still don't enjoy it per say, I leave those 90 seconds feeling really proud of myself and confident in my strength. I makes me want to show up again and prove to myself what else I can accomplish. I notice the same thing when I'm running. When I'm starting to feel like I'm hitting a wall, like I can't go on any further, I tune into that feeling, and somehow it fades away.

Interested in incorporating mindfulness into your exercise routine? Here's some tips:

ANCHOR WITH YOUR BREATH // To prevent injury, it's important to stretch before exercise. Use that time to do some deep breathing and prepare yourself mentally for your workout. Take deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. Then as you move, continue to feel your breath and make sure you're not holding it. Sometimes when my workout is getting particularly difficult, I notice I'm not breathing very deeply. After a few deep breaths, I get a burst of energy.

FEEL YOUR BODY // As you're moving, tune in to all the physical sensations in your body, both pleasant and unpleasant. Check in with your posture periodically. Notice your feet striking the floor, aching thighs, lungs stretching to fill up with air, trembling calf muscles, the stretch as your muscles release tension. Soak it all up, don't try to forcibly make it go away. Obviously, you want to be aware of your own limits and potential for injury, but outside of that, resist the temptation to suppress or ignore what's uncomfortable.

PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR SURROUNDINGS // Whether you're indoors or outdoors, notice your environment. This is easier when your outdoors - you've got the sky, other runners, buildings, trees, parks, etc. But even indoors you can pay attention to the room, temperature, lighting, yourself in the mirror (if you can neutrally focus on yourself/posture without judgement), the collective rhythm of everyone in class (try not to focus on one person in class, it's creepy for them and you'll likely end up comparing yourself). When I run, I call this meditation playing a 'human video camera'. I love to go through our historic neighborhood and imagine I'm filming everything I see, picking up on as many details as possible. 

NOTICE HOW YOU FEEL AFTERWARDS // Notice how you feel after you move your body. Probably pretty great, right? Maybe you feel sore and tired, but you also feel confident, strong, accomplished, and clear headed. Tapping into how exercise makes you feel, not what it theoretically should make you look like, is by FAR the most powerful motivator to get you to strap on your running shoes (or your sticky socks or your stretchy pants or your speedo...). One of my dietitian friends, Anne, told me how she has her clients write a letter to themselves after exercising describing how they feel and pulling it out when they're in need of a boost. I love that idea and just started incorporating it into my practice!

Mindfulness helps you turn exercise in to 'you time' versus a chore. I presume you'd much rather spend an hour at the spa getting a massage than washing the dishes, right? So wouldn't rather take 30 minutes to release tension in your body and clear your head than spend 30 minutes burning calories on the treadmill?

This Sunday, I was going for my long run while immersed in a podcast, and I fell. Like, hard. On my face too. At the furthest point out, I had to run all the way back home with blood dripping down my hands and knees. In my fall, I managed to break my ear buds, which sounds pretty bad but I think that's what saved my face. Without anything to listen to, I was in effect, forced to practice mindfulness. I thought about Scott's comment and tuned into the sound of my feet hitting the pavement. Despite looking like a scene from a horror movie, I had more pep to my step, and although my hands and knees were burning and sore, the rest of my body felt, well, good.

The next day when I went for my short run, I left the iphone at home. I'll still listen to something on most of my runs, but it was a nice reminder to turn off the noise on occasion and let the sound of my own feet be my music.

Now tell me, what do you love about how moving your body makes you feel? 

More on movement:

Movement, not Exercise

Movement, not Exercise

Four Tips for How to Learn Intuitive Movement

Four Tips for How to Learn Intuitive Movement

The Healing Power of Yoga

The Healing Power of Yoga