When you think of what it takes to get in great shape, and make lasting changes to your body, certain things probably come to mind.
You need to have a well-structured and manageable workout and nutrition plan to follow.
You need to have the discipline to stay on track with everything with reasonable consistency, week after week.
You need to have a certain amount of patience – recognizing that the results you want won’t happen overnight, and that you need to give it some time to all play out.
In addition to these things, though, I would say that one often overlooked quality that increases the likelihood of success with your fitness goals is a certain level of mindfulness.
This might sound a bit vague, even esoteric, but in my experience being mindful in your approach to fitness will make it much easier to achieve lasting results, and will also make the journey considerably less stressful for you.
So, in this article, I’m going to be exploring the topic of mindfulness as it relates to your fitness goals – first going into what mindfulness actually is, and then how you can apply it effectively to both your workouts and diet.
What Is Mindfulness?
Before we get into everything here, let’s first quickly go over what mindfulness actually is.
The best way to think of mindfulness is the ability to be completely present with what you’re doing at any given time.
During daily life, most of us have a lots of different thoughts swirling around in our heads, even as we are going about various mundane tasks.
Even when doing something simple, like taking a shower or brushing your teeth, you probably have all sorts of thoughts running through your head – reflecting on past problems, upcoming challenges – or even just random, tangential things that pop into your mind.
The same is probably true when you are working, driving your car, and even watching TV. There is a lot of mental chatter that goes on throughout the day, and most of the time it isn’t related to what you’re actually doing!
If you approach something mindfully, however, you devote your complete attention to the task at hand, not allowing your mind to run off in different directions.
So, if your brush your teeth mindfully, you would focus all of your attention on brushing your teeth. That’s it. No extraneous mental chatter or thought tangents.
Why does any of this matter?
Well, simply put, practicing mindfulness will make your life better, in pretty much every area that you choose to apply it.
Being mindful will reduce anxiety, frustration, and depression – since most of these negative emotions arise when you are not truly in the present moment. When you are present, and not dwelling on the past or the future, you’ll find that you tend to feel calmer and more centered as a person.
In addition, when you approach tasks mindfully, you’ll find that you tend to do them far more efficiently, and to a higher level of quality, since you won’t be leaking so much of your mental focus.
This is why mindfulness forms the basis of many meditation practices, since it teaches people to live their lives more in the present moment – focusing on where they are and what they are doing – instead of wasting energy on all of the stories that our minds will otherwise tell us.
How The Concept Of Mindfulness Can Apply To Your Workouts
Funnily enough, lifting weights is actually something that naturally lends itself to greater mindfulness.
When you are lifting heavy weights, out of necessity your mind automatically focuses more intently on what you’re doing.
To test this for yourself, try thinking about random, unrelated things during a heavy set of squats or deadlifts. You’ll find that it is pretty much impossible to do!
This is an example of where you are very much in the present moment – and during these times it will be pretty much impossible to feel actively stressed, worried, or frustrated.
So, if mindfulness is somewhat automatic when lifting weights, then why is it something that you need to be focusing on?
Well, it is not so much mindfulness during your actual sets that most people need to work on…
It is being mindful about your workouts in general – before your sets, after your sets, and your general attitude to your progress.
For instance, think about what you’re doing while waiting for your next set.
Are you thinking about other things you have to deal with later that day?
Or perhaps you’re thinking about how you’d rather be somewhere else entirely?
Or maybe you’re consumed with negative thoughts about your progress, comparing yourself to other people at the gym around you, and wondering why you’re not where you want to be yet.
If any of these ring a bell, then you are not being mindful or present; rather, you are letting your mind wonder off, taking you away from what you are trying to achieve and the task at hand.
Now, this might not sound all that significant, but I promise that if you practice being mindful before your sets, you’ll find that you end up performing better, and that you make faster progress overall.
The same concept of mindfulness can be applied after you finish a set too.
Let’s say that you didn’t do as well as you had hoped. Perhaps you didn’t get as many reps as you had wanted, or something felt off with your form.
If you fall into the trap of not being mindful, your thoughts will immediately start labeling the experience as a ‘failure’ – relating it to previous times where you’ve failed (both in the gym and otherwise), or forecasting an unsuccessful future, where you won’t be able to make the kind of progress that you ultimately want.
All of this causes unnecessary anxiety and frustration, making you unhappy, and potentially demotivating you for your next set (or future workouts).
In contrast, if you choose to approach a situation like that mindfully, you will simply see the experience for what it was: an imperfect set, and not terribly significant beyond that.
And since you won’t be encumbered by negative emotions, you’ll be able to more quickly see how you can improve things for next time.
Some Mindfulness Tips To Try
So far, we’ve gone over what mindfulness is, and how being mindful can improve the quality of your workouts, but you’re probably wondering how you can actually put this into practice.
This admittedly isn’t easy, and will require some practice, but here are a few techniques that you can try out for yourself.
1) Focus On Your Breath
Most of the time we aren’t focused on our breathing. It happens automatically, and is one of those background things that most of us don’t really think about much.
However, simply by focusing on your breathing, you’ll immediately bring yourself back to the present moment.
Just watch your breath as you inhale and exhale, observing all of the sensations that you notice.
Yes, it’s that simple, and by doing this you’ll refocus your meandering mind on the present, and should immediately feel calmer and more at ease.
This is a great thing to do as you are waiting to do your next set, or after you finish a set – especially if you felt that it didn’t go as well as you had hoped.
You will immediately feel calmer, and more centered, allowing you to focus your energy more purely on what you’re trying to achieve.
2) Practice ‘Do, Observe, Correct’
Despite how fitness is often marketed – with a focus on quick-fix solutions and endless novelty – the reality is that the building strength and muscle is a process.
Therefore, you want to treat each of your sets as a process, where you are trying to perform as well as you possibly can, and then unemotionally looking at how it went and making sensible corrections the next time.
One helpful way to do this is to follow the ‘Do, Observe, Correct’ methodology for each of your sets.
First, you do the set.
Then, you observe how it went. Was something off with your form, was the weight too heavy or too light, did something not feel right?
After that, you take what you observed, and focus on correcting it for the following set, or the next time you perform the exercise.
Well, unfortunately, most people tend to go straight from observing how something went to judging it. For example, if you felt like your form was off on a set of squats, the natural tendency is to judge yourself for that – telling yourself that it was a bad set, or that you somehow failed.
This is an utter waste of mental energy. Judging yourself like this won’t improve your performance, or bring you closer to your goals; instead, it will only serve to waste your energy and move you further away from where you want to be.
Simply observe how things went, and then put your energy into correcting it the next time, without allowing yourself to fall into the trap of emotionally draining judgement.
3) Become The Observer
This one might seem a bit esoteric, but bear with me here…
When you practice mindfulness meditation, one key thing that you learn is to watch your thoughts, creating space between them and your true self.
During most of the day, most of us feel like we are our thoughts; that they define us and our sense of self.
However, if you practice watching your thoughts, you’ll start to see that they have a life of their own, and tend to run along independently from your deeper sense of self.
Moreover, you realize that when you become the ‘observer’ – the watcher of your thoughts – you don’t feel nearly as attached to them, and their power over you diminishes greatly.
This is a very useful technique for dealing with negative thought patterns, as they relate to your workouts, diet, or general sense of progress.
If you step back and become the observer, you may see that there are negative thoughts swimming around in your head, but they will feel separate (and sometimes even silly).
This allows you to operate with a clearer sense of purpose, unburdened by negative thought patterns weighing you down, which in turn will put you in a position to make more consistent progress in the long run.
The Bottom Line On Mindfulness And Fitness
If some of these tips sounds pretty challenging, don’t like that deter you.
Mindfulness isn’t something that will come easily right away; it goes against many of our natural inclinations, and needs to be practiced in order to be effective.
However, if you work on implementing some of the tips I mentioned above – starting with the breathing tip first, and working your way down – you should find that you feel more effective during your workouts, moving towards your goals more steadily, and with a lot less unnecessary frustration along the way.
And that is because applying greater mindfulness to your workouts, diet, or many other things in your life, makes you naturally more focused on the process, and less on the goals themselves.
This is not to say that the goals you have aren’t important, but they will be achieved more easily by staying grounded in the present, and focusing on the process, than by fixating too much on the goals themselves.
I should also mention that this article really just scratches the surface on the topic of mindfulness. If you’re interested in learning more about how to apply mindfulness to different goals in your life, I would highly recommend reading The Practicing Mind, which you can check out on Amazon here.
Do you have any questions about mindfulness and fitness? Let us know in the comments below!