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Natural Awakenings, Broward County, Florida

Mind-Body Fitness

How Mindfulness Benefits Workouts

by Marlaina Donato

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. Connect at AutumnEmbersMusic.com.