Can Mindfulness Help Your Fitness?

Our society often thinks that sticking to our exercise goals means we need more grit, motivation, willpower, and even shame (yikes). What I propose instead is believing in mindful integrity rather than brute force discipline.

Mindfulness, or the ability to attend nonjudgmentally to one’s own physical and mental processes, has been receiving more and more air time as a potential determinant of health. Sadly not enough is known about mindfulness and its association with cardiovascular health and fitness, in my opinion, but I am nonetheless completely on board with this idea. I mean, it’s not some experimental drug that could cause you to grow a third arm or something… although that would be pretty helpful!

There was a study done back on 2015 titled, Positive Associations of Dispositional Mindfulness with Cardiovascular Health: the New England Family Study that concluded “dispositional mindfulness is positively associated with cardiovascular health, with the associations particularly driven by smoking, body mass index, fasting glucose, and physical activity.”

Dispositional mindfulness, as those lab coat-clad researchers called it, can be summed up as: “A keen awareness and attention to our thoughts and feelings right in the very moment that they pop up.”

It’s a thoughtful attunement to what is going on inside your mind and body. Perhaps you can picture it as a keenly aware layer that exists between you and your experience. Or maybe you can imagine it as a centeredness that keeps your focus on “medium alert” while being fully present – in the moment. Personally, I describe it as a systematic, self-aware, deliberate consideration that follows me in all my daily decisions. 

The mindful processing of emotional and physical sensations in this way can steer (purposefully or subconsciously) our responses and choices which in turn can certainly help us achieve our goal body weight, body fat percentage, one rep max, target distance, or whatever our fitness goal happens to be. 

Does it work?

A study published in the Journal of Behavior Research and Therapy performed a super cool trial whereby they examined the relationship between exercise consistency (how often the study subjects went to the gym) and mindfulness on 266 YMCA gym members. According to the authors, “those who were successful at maintaining exercise tended to score higher on measures of mindfulness and acceptance… exercisers having greater mindfulness and acceptance are less reactive; responding with more balanced appraisals to threats to their exercise regimen which in turn promotes increased exercise maintenance.”

Another study of 62 women over 6 months found that those who applied mindfulness meditation practices to their daily or weekly routine had a much higher level of physical activity (i.e. exercise and movement) than those who didn’t use mindfulness. And this is even cooler, they also showed greater reductions in BMI, most likely due to their concurrent reduction in overeating.

How to Develop Dispositional Mindfulness

Although some people are naturally wired toward this type of self-awareness, experts agree that it can be trained and cultivated by anyone. Take a look at this Mindful Attention Awareness Scale and see where you land. The questions have to do with the various ways we use to stay in the present moment – “I find myself preoccupied with the future or the past,” performing one task at a time – “I find myself listening to someone with one ear, doing something else at the same time,” and being in touch with your feelings in the moment – “I could be experiencing some emotion and not be conscious of it until some time later.” 

Now think about where you would like to fall on that scale and how that could potentially affect and benefit your level of current dedication to your own physical fitness. 

My challenge to you is to try to think of one way that you have practiced mindfulness during the past week as you racked up your fitness goals. Even if you didn’t identify it as mindfulness in the moment, when did you experience that quiet focus while you made a healthy choice during your day? If a time doesn’t come to mind, think about how would you like to incorporate this more mindful living into the coming week. Then strive to make it the backbone and motivating factor – instead of grit and determination – of this fit and healthy lifestyle that you have chosen.

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