Whether you’re a seasoned athlete or someone who regularly hits the gym to stay in shape, you know that summoning up the power to finish your workout takes mental strength just as much as, if not more so, than physical strength. Without the mental fortitude to keep going and finish strong, your body may give in to the stress and decide to quit.
Exercise is a form of beneficial stress to your body, particularly when you engage in vigorous or high-intensity activities. This is why it’s so important to take adequate time for recovery and also why mental resilience and focus is crucial to a successful training session. Your mind, like your body, can grow weary, however, and researchers have begun looking into how training your mind via meditation and other tools may in turn help you train your body.
Meditation Boosts Athletes’ Well-Being During Demanding Training
Taking the time to “train” your mind using meditation may be a simple way to enhance your physical fitness and well-being, according to a study published in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement.1 College athletes (Division I football players) took part in either relaxation training, in which they listened to calming music while relaxing their muscles, or mindfulness meditation, which involved focusing on breathing and staying in the present moment.
The sessions lasted just 12 minutes and took place in the gym following strength-training workouts for a period of four weeks during preseason training. The students were also asked to engage in the techniques on their own during the week, but all sessions were voluntary. While all of the athletes tended to show signs of mental strain as the preseason training progressed, there were benefits to those who took more time to train mentally as well. The New York Times reported:2
“The more an athlete in the relaxation group had practiced relaxing, the less his mood had tended to decline, the researchers found. And those in the meditation group, if they had practiced often, showed considerable mental resilience, with higher scores than the other athletes in either group on the measures of both attention and mood.”
In other words, by tending to their mental needs, the athletes were able to alleviate some of the cognitive strain that occurred during the demanding athletic training, with mindfulness training showing an advantage over relaxation training. Even for non-athletes, the research suggests that mindfulness meditation may give you a mental edge that helps you stay on target during challenging workouts (and also has benefits in other areas).
Increasing Research Supports Mindfulness Training for Athletes
The topic of mindfulness training for athletes, including those in high school and college, is becoming increasingly popular, especially as evidence continues to emerge that mindfulness-based interventions may help improve physical and mental well-being in this injury- and stress-prone population. In 2016, a study published in the Journal of Sport Rehabilitation asked whether mindfulness for student athletes between the ages of 13 and 24 years would help reduce stress and injury and improve overall quality of life.
After reviewing the available literature, the authors concluded that mindfulness-based interventions helped student athletes manage negative emotions and stress, improve well-being and even reduce injuries. A 2017 meta-analysis published in Sports Medicine also revealed that mindfulness appears to affect cognitive processes that may improve athletic performance, noting:
“Mindfulness practice consistently and beneficially modulates mindfulness scores. Furthermore, physiological and psychological surrogates improved to a meaningful extent following mindfulness practice, as well as performance outcomes in shooting and dart throwing. It seems reasonable to consider mindfulness practice strategies as a regular complementary mental skills training approach for athletes, at least in precision sports.”
Mindfulness May Help You Start and Maintain Your Exercise Program
For non-athletes simply interested in staying healthy, overcoming mental barriers to exercise is still crucial, and this, too, may become easier if you regularly practice mindfulness. While some people look forward to exercise and enjoy the rush of pleasurable feelings it creates (the so-called “runner’s high”), others dread it. Mindfulness may play a powerful role here.
One intriguing study published in the Journal of Health Psychology revealed that people who reported being mindful during exercise (i.e., being in the moment, fully immersed in the activity) also felt more satisfied with the exercise. Study author Kalliopi-Eleni Tsafou, a Marie Curie research fellow at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, told the Times:
“The message is that mindfulness may amplify satisfaction, because one is satisfied when positive experiences with physical activity become prominent … For those experiences to be noticed one must become aware of them. We would argue that this can be achieved by being mindful.”
Research published in Mindfulness journal similarly found that being more mindful may encourage you to make healthier choices and increase exercise motivation.7 In some cases, group exercise classes are even incorporating brief moments of mindful introspection into its high-intensity classes, which are designed to train both your mind and your body at the same time.8
How to Add Mindfulness to Your Workout
Practicing “mindfulness” means you’re actively paying attention to the moment you’re in right now. Rather than letting your mind wander, when you’re mindful you’re living in the moment and letting distracting thoughts pass through your mind without getting caught up in their emotional implications.
You can add mindfulness to virtually any aspect of your day — even while you’re exercising, eating, working or doing household chores like washing dishes — simply by paying attention to the sensations you are experiencing in the present moment. You can also be formally “trained” in mindfulness via mindfulness meditation courses and other mindfulness-based interventions.
Professionally organized mindfulness training programs may be best for some people, but you can also take steps to become more mindful in your everyday life, then pull up these skills whenever you feel stress starting to take hold, including while you’re exercising.
As for why it’s so effective in terms of exercise, remember that exercise is a form of stress, and research shows mindfulness may regulate your body’s physical stress response via stress-reduction pathways in your body.9 As explained via a press release from Carnegie Mellon:10
“When an individual experiences stress, activity in the prefrontal cortex — responsible for conscious thinking and planning — decreases, while activity in the amygdala, hypothalamus and anterior cingulate cortex — regions that quickly activate the body’s stress response — increases. Studies have suggested that mindfulness reverses these patterns during stress; it increases prefrontal activity, which can regulate and turn down the biological stress response.
Excessive activation of the biological stress response increases the risk of diseases impacted by stress (like depression, HIV and heart disease). By reducing individuals’ experiences of stress, mindfulness may help regulate the physical stress response and ultimately reduce the risk and severity of stress-related diseases.”
Mindfulness is just one way to tap into the close connection between your mind and physical body. There are others as well, each of which has the potential to “trick” your mind into making physical fitness more easily attainable. The video above shows ways you can trick yourself into exercising, although research suggests consistent exercisers have made exercise a habit triggered by a cue, such as hearing the morning alarm and heading for the gym first thing in the morning without even thinking about it.
This kind of habit is referred to as “an instigation habit,” and it was found to provide people with the most consistent results. What else works to hack your mind for a better, more intense workout and, ultimately, a fitter you?
Focus Your Eyes on a Set Target
Keeping your eyes focused on a target in the distance while walking makes you walk faster and makes the distance seem shorter, according to research published in Motivation and Emotion. Study author Emily Balcetis, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the department of psychology at New York University, said in a press release:
“People are less interested in exercise if physical activity seems daunting, which can happen when distances to be walked appear quite long … These findings indicate that narrowly focusing visual attention on a specific target, like a building a few blocks ahead, rather than looking around your surroundings, makes that distance appear shorter, helps you walk faster and also makes exercising seem easier.”
Exercise in Front of a Mirror
The simple act of watching yourself exercise in a mirror will make your workout more efficient, as people have a tendency to adopt a step pattern that is similar to people around them. By watching yourself in a mirror, it may encourage you to stabilize your movement pattern for a more efficient workout. Study authors explained, “Visual information influences treadmill locomotion and associated measures of stability even when there is no intention to coordinate with external stimuli.”
Use Positive Affirmations
When you’re tempted to quit, stay positive by reminding yourself you can do it. Positive affirmations like “I am strong” and “I’m full of energy” work well here, and research suggests they can also boost performance. Nick Galli, an assistant professor of sport psychology, told Men’s Health, “Positive self-talk reinforces your confidence and boosts your energy so you won’t quit when you feel tired or challenged.”
Listen to Music
When exercisers were able to listen to their favorite songs during a session of sprint interval training, their perceived enjoyment increased and was consistently higher than those performing the interval training without music. Past research has also shown that music can significantly boost your exertion level during a workout.
Ultimately, it’s becoming clear that in order to have a strong physical body, a strong mind is also required. There are many ways to build your mental reserves and stamina, from mindfulness meditation to positive self-talk, and harnessing those that appeal most to you can boost your overall wellness while helping you reach higher fitness plateaus.