7 Ways to Approach Fitness Mindfully

by Dan Maierle

As a fitness nut, I often find myself facing the types of stresses that many exercisers cope with.

I wonder if I’ll have enough time to get to the gym; I worry that it’ll be crowded; I stress over my meal choices; I fear that I’m not making enough progress. However, like many things in life, when one gets caught up in the stress of an endeavor, the resulting negativity can be harmful to the mind, body, and spirit that is ultimately responsible for making the progress that we seek.

Mindfulness is the practice of addressing negative thought patterns and limiting beliefs that often clutter our minds. It is the process of purposefully examining our thoughts at any given moment without attaching emotions and judgments that can be harmful.

Though the two are interrelated, mindfulness differs from meditation in that one can (and should) practice the principles of mindfulness throughout the day, in any situation where the need arises.
The purpose of mindfulness is not to clear your mind of all thought, but to observe thoughts, allow them to be, and let them go if necessary. Though many of its underlying principles stem from traditional Buddhism, mindfulness is not associated with any particular religious practice, philosophy, or school of psychology.

Can the practice of mindfulness help us with fitness? I certainly think so. Here’s a look at how careful examination of the negative thoughts that stem from diet and exercise may help you maintain and find success in your fitness routine.

Focus on the Present

Focusing on the present moment is perhaps the most crucial step that one can take on the road to mindfulness, and it has compelling applications to fitness. Think about it: no matter how you approach fitness, all exercise exists and can only exist from one moment to the next. It happens 1 lap at a time, 1 rep at a time, 1 step at a time.

An excellent first step toward achieving a mindful presence during exercise is to focus on your breathing and begin to closely examine your surroundings.

What do you see, hear, and smell? Next, bring your attention from the environment outside of yourself to your mind within. What types of thoughts flow through you?

As you move through this process, you may begin to recognize thoughts that are negative in nature. We’ve all had them:

I ate too much last weekend.

I had a terrible day at work.

The house is a mess; I’ll have to cut this workout short.

These thoughts all have one thing in common: they all pertain not to the present moment, but to the past or the future. Since we’re focusing on the present, these notions are of no use to you at this time. Acknowledging that these thoughts exist, accepting them, and then letting them go will help you gain focus and presence.

Continue maintaining this awareness of your thoughts and your environment as you proceed through your routine.

If this is difficult for you, allow yourself a moment to bring your attention back to your thoughts and environment. You might even consider limiting any habitual cell phone use that may remove you from the present moment, and if you’re feeling brave, give a headphones-free workout a try.

Find Acceptance

Many of us have embarked on a fitness journey in an effort to change something about our bodies or appearance. While it’s OK to set goals and to aspire to make changes in your body, you must first accept both your body and your physical state for what they are in this moment.

Recognize and let go of any thoughts or notions pertaining to what your body or your level of fitness should be. You are exactly who and what you are in this moment, a creation of past experiences and actions too numerous to name.

Love, respect, and accept your body for what it is today rather than what you desire it to be.

Loving yourself and desiring change are not mutually exclusive. If you’re truly committed to making a change, accepting your current state will serve to motivate and empower you even further.

This is a step that I personally find to be the most challenging. I’ve spent the last several months coping with a chronic headache disorder that has derailed my fitness routine and caused me to gain weight. The condition has somewhat improved, and my fitness routine is back on track, but I often find myself angry and frustrated. For me, acceptance has meant forgiving my body for the problems that it has caused me and recognizing that the solutions I seek will only appear if and when the mind and body can work together.

Let Go of Judgment

This applies to both the judgment we inflict upon ourselves as well as the judgment that we so easily cast on others with whom we share our life experiences, including exercise.

Allow yourself the freedom to pursue your goals in a space that’s judgment-free.

First and foremost, recognize and let go of the judgments that may arise from comparing yourself to others. We’ve all had these types of thoughts creep in when observing fit folks with enviable physiques:

He must not have a real job if he can work out that much.

I’ll bet she has a HUGE ego.

He obviously does steroids.

These types of judgments, even though they live exclusively in our heads, are harmful to us because they remove us from the present moment, introduce negativity that is counterproductive, and detract from the self-focus that our workouts need. View other exercisers through a lens of respect and compassion, or better yet, remove your focus from others altogether.

Likewise, avoid applying judgments or labels to yourself.

I’m too old for this type of workout.

My results are limited by bad genes.

I’m a hard-gainer.

Sound familiar? Rid yourself of labels and bring your focus the task at hand.

Align the Mind and Body

There are a number of reasons to listen to your body while exercising and when making food choices. Once the mind is tuned into the present moment and you’re free of judgment, begin thoughtful observation of the physical sensations occurring throughout your body. You may ask yourself questions like:

Am I pushing my body hard enough?

Have I eaten enough today?

Is this pain point just normal wear and tear, or am I risking injury?

Aligning the mind and body will help you get the most out of your diet and exercise program, and prevent the types of injuries that frequently derail newfound attempts to embrace fitness.

Practice Tolerance

There’s one thing that fitness experts seldom acknowledge – especially to those who are just beginning their fitness journey – and that is that some fitness experiences are unpleasant, or even painful. An intense workout may leave you tired and sore. Learning a new skill may cause you frustration. Participating in group fitness for the first time may cause you anxiety. Skipping dessert may leave you with intense cravings. Though it’s contrary to human nature, you must allow yourself to experience and tolerate the discomfort associated with exercise. Assure yourself that these sensations are only temporary, and know that your tolerance will grow over time.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. – Haruki Murakami

Embrace Self-Validation

One of the most enjoyable parts of fitness is in the acknowledgement that you receive from others for making positive changes.

You look great! Have you lost weight?

Someone’s been working out!

I heard that you ran a 5k. That’s incredible!

These folks mean well, and it’s OK to enjoy this type of recognition, but know that disappointment may arise if you come to depend on others to validate your efforts. The only validation of value is that which comes from within.

Don’t let feedback from others determine how you feel, and don’t let an absence of external validation deter you from taking pride in your efforts and results.

Enjoy compliments from others more than you need them to keep pushing ahead.

There is a great deal to be proud of when embracing fitness, but not every single price point is as visible to others as things like weight loss or muscle growth. You must learn to take personal pride in the smaller, everyday victories, recognizing not only outcomes but efforts. Pat yourself on the back for completing a good workout, losing a couple of pounds, or making an informed meal choice.

You should also know that, especially if your goals are weight loss or muscle gain, your results will undoubtedly taper off after time. You may lose 3 pounds in week 1 and struggle to lose 1 pound in week 10. If you’ve already developed a model’s physique, chances are the compliments will slow down at some point. Don’t let this tapering deter you from committing to long-term goals, or from recognizing your own progress, large or small.

Learn Patience

Any fitness expert will extol on the virtues of patience and its importance in staying committed to an exercise program. We know that we need to be patient………so why is it so darn difficult?!

Think of your fitness journey not as an expressway, but as a 2-lane road that winds through rural, rugged and mountainous backcountry. Sometimes the road is slippery, and you’ll have to slow down, whether you like it or not. Sometimes you’ll run into an unexpected stop sign, or the bridge ahead will be out completely. You might even be miles into your journey before realizing that the map you’ve been using is upside-down.

One thing is for sure though – there are no shortcuts on this journey.

Focusing on the present moment and letting go of fixations on results will allow you to create the patience that is necessary to achieve those results. It may also be helpful to set goals without deadlines or specific outcomes attached to them. Try simply committing yourself to health and fitness rather than losing a dress size for your class reunion or looking good at the beach next summer.

Get your mind right and your body tight!

Always consult with your physician before beginning any diet or exercise program.

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