Mindful Exercise: How to Reboot Your Attitude Toward Fitness


Instead of distracting yourself when discomfort strikes, bring your attention to how your grip, breath and muscles feel. (Getty Images)

‘Tis the season to throw in the towel on your exercise routine. After all, trail hikes, park runs, playground visits and even short walks to the car en route to a heated gym seem less attractive in darkness and bitter cold. But rather than telling you how to ramp up your exercise motivation in cold weather (there’s already endless advice on the topic), I’d like to encourage you to examine your relationship with exercise during this time of year instead.

If this sounds like an exercise in mindfulness, you’re right. Mindfulness is paying attention on purpose instead of falling into old, habitual, potentially toxic ways of focusing and thinking – in this case, about exercise. For example, look at your thoughts (“I’m too lazy to walk on the treadmill today” or “I’ll start exercising in the New Year”) curiously and with distance. Question their validity and act separately from them – not as if they are truthful statements that must be believed or obeyed. Approach workouts with openness – even if you know the act of exercising may bring up feelings like fear of muscular pain or incompetence over not performing exercises as well as the person beside you. Bringing an openness, or a sort of purposeful attention, to your experience with exercise can change how the actual exercise itself feels, as well as its effects on you.

[See: Mantras That Get 11 Diet and Fitness Pros Through Their Toughest Moments.]

While most of us seek to avoid or distract ourselves from workout-induced discomfort, placing your attention on the experience itself is empowering since monitoring your internal states makes you feel as though you have control over your body. Plus, it’s revealing, just as it is for a child peeking under his bed in search of a monster: Trying to avoid something painful or scary usually exacerbates the feeling. Confronting it makes you realize there was never really anything to be afraid of.

Here are some examples of how bringing a new kind of attention to exercise can naturally give your workouts some added flavor – just in time for the holidays:

1. Focus on your breathing while ramping up your aerobic intensity.

While it’s tempting (and sometimes helpful) to distract yourself with music or the external environment while on the bike or elliptical, paying attention to your breathing instead can regulate it to healthier, smoother and less rapid levels. Once regulated, try aligning the rhythm of your breathing with the pace of your running. You’re more likely to enter a nice flow when breathing is consistent. Consciously bringing your breath to a steady measure will likely bring your mind to balance and tranquility – and make the workout more enjoyable.

2. Be “with” the sensory experience of the bicep as it curls the weight.

Instead of distracting yourself when discomfort hits, notice the intricacies of the movement itself – the grip of your fingers around the dumbbell, your arm’s intent to begin curling before it actually does, the pinching or burning feeling throughout your arm as the muscle contracts and the pace of your breathing. Being with the exercise may encourage you to slow down your pace, which can boost the exercise’s benefits.

3. Choose the more scenic option when possible.

Opt for the bundled-up walk outdoors (yes, even in frigid temperatures) or simply allow natural light to penetrate your indoor workout space. Studies show that interaction with natural environments can reduce mental fatigue and restore attention. In a recent study with mothers and their preteen daughters, a walk in nature increased positive interactions and helped restore attention, likely because attention is not being diverted to other technologically-driven stimuli. Plus, it’s easier to be mindful of your surroundings when they’re pleasant and interesting – the same can’t always be said on an elliptical or walking around a mall.

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