February 23, 2015

Mindfulness, Exercise, and Grousing

By Crabby McSlacker

So a New York Times article just highlighted a study suggesting that "mindfulness can jumpstart exercise routines."

As it happens, I believe that both increased mindfulness and consistent exercise are really good for you! And yet both are much easier in theory and in perky magazine articles. In real life, they can be a royal pain in the ass to try to practice on a consistent basis over the long haul.

So, is combining the two a good idea?  And if you do decide to try it, what are some ideas for optimizing your experience?

I am obviously no expert, but when it comes to mind/body motivational issues, I am an obsessive navel-gazing crackpot a curious experimenter. So sure, I've been playing around with this combination quite a bit.  And I suspect many of you guys have done some experimenting yourselves and I'll be curious what you've discovered. (Of course all you yoga people are way ahead of the rest of us on this one.)

But first, how about a pissy rant about mindfulness generally? Because leave it Cranky Fitness, a blog so ornery that it could actually diss gratitude, to have complaints about mindfulness as well.

Mindfulness: Mighty Handy, But Not Always The Universal F--cking Answer to Everything?

This is a more general gripe I've got, but I promise we'll get to the exercise part in a minute.

So sure, there is tons of research an eons of teachings to suggest that cultivating an ability to be aware in the present moment is good for both body and brain.

Now that East has met West and Spiritual has met Scientific and even businesses and government bureaucracies are holding hands and burning incense and getting on board, everyone seems to be nagging us that we should be present and engaged in every sensory experience and bodily sensation and emotion 24/7.

Given that most of us have been walking around in a mental daze most of our lives, letting our thoughts control us rather than the other way around, this is not entirely bad advice!

Except that I hate when it's presented so one-sidedly.

Thinking about the past and future?  Planning, scheming, reminiscing, day-dreaming, worrying, having imaginary conversations in our head... all these take us away from the moment.  Depending on who you read, these mental activities can be seen not just as simple alternatives to a more sensory, primal experience, but as inherently dysfunctional modes of being in the world.

by TZA

Well I'm sorry, but this seems like horseshit to me.

Ever read Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now?  A brilliant book, and a total mindf--ck, even if he does seem to borrow most of his idea from eastern traditions without acknowledging them.  But too much of that sort of reading and the "concentrate ONLY on the present" and "thinking is bad" messages can backfire.

Those of us with perfectionist tendencies can end up feeling like the mental activities that are most natural for us are somehow evil and that we should feel badly for 99% of the contents of our consciousness. This mindset does not lead to peace and tranquility.

Nope: for many of us, pathologizing our normal thinking habits leads to self-flagellation and yet more cognition and meta-cognition and meta-meta-cognition.

So screw that. Lets embrace the thinky parts of our brains, as well as the sensing feeling "being" parts of it and just try to be more strategic about what goes on in our heads when, with an eye towards making our inner life as pleasant and functional as possible.

Because duh, planning and speculating are very handy practical tools for living!  And daydreaming about the future or reminiscing about the past can be a delicious experience in the Now and a perfectly good use of brain cells.

And one last complaint about Mindfulness as Universal Solution to everything:  some experiences in the Now are not pleasant and may actually be painful, exhausting and discouraging.  And sure, accepting and immersing yourself in them can have benefits, but I also think mental distraction is a perfectly legitimate strategy for Now's that Totally Suck.

Which... leads us smack into exercise!

When Bringing Mindfulness to Exercise May Not Be a Great Idea:

OK, so what follows is pretty obvious.  But many of us  have a tendency to ignore the obvious when some headline says points to a fresh study saying that what we've been doing is wrong, wrong wrong.

So I'd say, if you don't much enjoy exercise, but you have a perfectly suitable distraction that allows you to experience exercise completely unmindfully, then keep doing that!

I see many people on the treadmill watching television, or reading ebooks, or listening to Wait Wait Don't Tell Me podcasts, or contemplating the perfectly shaped hindquarters of the muscular dude pounding away on the treadmill in front of them, and they seem quite content!  Whereas if they were really tuning in to all the physical sensations they were experiencing, they'd be miserable.

The idea that the only way to triumph over discomfort is to immerse ourselves in it and transcend it? Well, screw that.

That said, there are some advantages to be had when playing with the strategic use of attention during physical activity.

Ideas for Adding Mindfulness to Your Workouts

1. Focus on the Pleasant or Interesting!

"Mindfulness" has all kinds of definitions, but the crux seems to be the practice of returning your attention in a deliberate fashion to some aspect of the present moment.  Breath is a typical focal point, and if you find that works for you then go for it.  

But there are a crapload of other places you can engage your attention as well. If you are outside, and moving through a changing environment, there are various sights and sounds and smells and feels, and some of them can be quite compelling.   

You can focus for a while on ambient noises and realize how much you normally tune out.

You can focus on certain aspects of what you see.

You can focus on how areas of your body feel, particularly the ones that are not in pain and screaming at you.

You can feel your feet hit the ground, or feel the breeze or sun on your skin. Or, you are doing something aquatic the sensuality of movement through water can be quite striking if you pay very close attention.

You can also focus on subtle (or not so subtle) emotions you are experiencing in your body. You can focus especially hard on positive ones, even visualizing them getting stronger and coaxing them into taking up more mental real estate.

Note: I am a clumsy but enthusiastic follower of Shinzen Young. Of course since I'm stubbornly contrary, I do sometimes mess around and twist his tidy and logical system into something far weirder. But his teachings are a great source for getting ideas of things to focus on that are not unpleasant.

2. Start with Gentler Activities

It is much easier, especially at first, to combine mindfulness with athletic activities that fall into the "endurance" or "flexibility" categories rather than the "intensity" realms. 

For example, I've written at length about a mindful yoga alternative I invented, with all sorts of freakish examples of ways to work with both body and mind simultaneously.

And I also am a big believer in bizarre but entertaining walking mediations, whether in nature, or in urban landscapes.

Eventually though, you will find that you can sometimes even immerse yourself in the usually-miserable high intensity sensations with more curiosity and tranquility, and even joy-- though for me it helps if there is a hell of a lot of caffeine in my system and (see below) awesome tunes on my playlist. 

3. Give Yourself Double Credit

If you are attempting to direct your mind during an athletic experience, even if it's just to make it more tolerable, then you tackling two different laudable goals at the same time!  This means you either get to spend less time doing a sitting mindfulness practice, if you have one, or you get to be Super Duper Smug about exercising both brain and body.  Each endeavor takes willpower, but they also both build willpower as well, so do gloat to yourself a bit for your multi-tasking awesomeness.

4. Capitalize on the Power of Music

I'm like a broken record on this one (so to speak), but I do think that this is one of the best "in the moment" methods of embracing all the sensations of body movement mindfully. Because a compelling beat and a rousing chorus that is so catchy it it takes all your willpower to stop yourself from belting it out loud at the top of your lungs at the gym... this is the bestest way ever to transform the very bodily sensations that we associate with pain and exhaustion into an exhilarating dance of jubilation.

5. Brainwash Yourself With Positive Thoughts or Affirmations

Meditation takes many forms, and we know from various compassion meditations that a positive thought is a perfectly respectable subject for attentional focus.  The trick of course is to keep returning to it! But it beats returning your attention to the clock, moving at a glacial pace, or thoughts of how nice it would be to just quit early.  And, as with all forms of mindfulness, you get credit for trying, even if you, like me, are not very good at sustained effort.

6. Improve Your Biomechanics and Ward Off Injuries!

If the brain benefits of meditation and mindfulness seem too speculative or long term or woo-woo, you can practice sustained focus in a more concrete and pragmatic way.

Because chances are there's some aspect of your gait or form that could use improvement, and the effort to focus on a body part can actually count as mindfulness!  For example, some of us are crap at activating our glutes when we move.  Cultivating the ability to feel whether these muscles are working or loafing takes concentration, and in my mind, totally counts as brain training.

How about you guys, do you ever try to combine mindfulness with exercise? 


  1. Though I know I should be doing more/different/better, my main.. no, only form of exercise these days is walking. And due to a back issue, very little of that lately. When I do walk, I have the camera with me (and the dog). I'm mindful of my surroundings/photo opportunities. I try not to think of the mechanics of walking. It's what I see while out there that I enjoy.. not the walking itself.

  2. My trainer always wants me to be in the moment and thinking about the muscles I am using and if the exercise isn't too stressful I can do that and take joy in how my body functions and how I can control it. If the workout is stressful or burns then I want my brain someplace else and once you get thinking about burning muscles it is hard to get the job done.

  3. I prefer to let my mind wander when I exercise unless I am doing a specified number of reps in which case I have to count and that keeps me in the moment. But walking, biking, and the like I unleash my mind and hope it finds me once I'm done.

    1. I count what my mind does when I unleash it on a walk as meditation. Often I will be reminiscing about the past, but equally often I will Just Be Noticing.

      Mary Anne in Kentucky

  4. This was an awesome post! It is so difficult to practice mindfulness and being in the present when you're in the middle of a tough workout. I've come to terms with just being okay with not being able to do it all the time - when I do it's magical, but HGTV on the treadmill is kind of magical too.

    1. I'm with you--if tragedy strikes and for some reason I don't have my mp3 player, home renovation porn on HGTV at least makes a treadmill bearable! :)

  5. Yoga is my favourite way to exercise and to be mindful. It is a very in the moment activity for me and I find it very easy to be right there…if my mind strays, I tend to fall…so I try very hard to be there. Sometimes a 90 minute class passes like a few minutes. Very strange…yet very enjoyable.

  6. If I'm outside, I often play a colors game with myself. It's not so much mindfulness as awareness and appreciation of my surroundings. I'll pick a color that's common but not ubiquitous (light green, purple, red, dark blue, not ones like black, white, or grey) and notice as many instances as I can for about a block, and then switch colors for the next block.

    1. Colors are a great focus when outside Ann! I like that one too.

  7. Not every minute has to be a mindful minute. In so many categories in life, a group of people decide one way is the right way for them, so it has to be right for everyone, and that's just not so.

    Exercise is one of those things i'm usually just trying to get done and over with.

  8. I don't know. The benefits of exercise on concentration, memory and focus are well documented but the question of "does concentration or focus improve exercise outcomes" is a really good one and one we haven't really studied much. I think it has to work both ways. So the question is: if I focus on my workout and body movements does my body know it and therefore respond differently? I have to think yes, it does based on the positive and well documented benefits of imagery, visualization and focus training in sports performance particularly.

    I suppose put another way, how effective are we at doing anything when we are multitasking? Not very and that is also well documented. How much benefit do we get from any one thing while we are trying to do many things at once? I would think the same principle has to apply here. There is a type of resistance training known as super slow (http://www.webmd.com/men/features/want-more-strength-slow-down) that shows greater strength gains than just traditional resistance training in numerous studies. Now, we assume this is because of increased prolonged tension on the muscle but I often wonder if the strength gains are greater because when you are engaging in those movements, you have to focus on them, your mind cannot wander. Do we see better benefits when we are not just going through the motions? (Which also suggests there might be varying degrees of benefits depending on our attention to the detail).

    Do I think we need to focus all intensely on every single exercise session, no. Sometimes it's better to just let the mind wander for stress reduction or other reasons....but I do kind of wonder about this idea of being able to focus on the body while moving and benefits associated with that concept.

    See: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Observer_effect_%28physics%29) and (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double-slit_experiment)

  9. I'm totally with you, Crabby. People need to step off my thinky brain and let it do its thing. I tend to get lost in the music when exercising (mostly cycling at this stage), but I get my mindfulness in with gardening. Being outside in the sun, helping my flowers and veggies grow, and listening to my bird legion are great foci for being in the now. Because that's a nice now. :-)

  10. Hi Cranky!
    Could you please define F--cking? That word's not in my prictionary.

    To get serious just for 10 seconds, I think some level of mindfulness is very valuable for exercise and elsewhere, if you want to perform at your best and get the most benefit. In this social media/iPhone world where 100% attention is entirely absent, getting some mindfulness is a nice change.

    A great example of zero mindfulness is the people I see in the gym day after day, whose routine never varies, they never improve, and get little benefit.

    That said, total laser focus isn't needed for a basically good exercise routine.

    And speaking of super high intensity exercise crowding out thoughts, I think that this is, in its own way, a very focused kind of mindfulness akin to meditation, and I think people like extreme rock climbers would agree.

    Cheers, Dave/Tabby

  11. I do both. When I am active outdoors, I never have any device tom entertain me. At home or in the gym, I watch TV or movies. Not having a crutch never has stopped me, however. If the power goes out, I keep going, lol

    I live very much in the moment for good or ill.

  12. Only when I'm racing or doing speed work does mindfulness benefit me. Otherwise, I'm zoning out to 50 Cent or Lady Gaga. I can't fathom running 18 miles "mindfully!" Or childbirth for that matter. Gah!

  13. When I run I like to watch mindless TV - it distracts me some but I can still be aware of my run. The rest of my workouts I try to be pretty much all tuned in!

  14. I love this post (and I've loved many recently but my home computer isn't cooperating on comments - ugh!). Sometimes I am mindful; sometimes I am not. I find when I let my mind wander when I'm on the elliptical, with the music blaring, I often come with great solutions to problems at work or other projects I'm working on. I think the happy chemicals of exercise makes me creative.

    And "Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me" is one of my favorite swimming pod casts! Without something to occupy me in the pool, those laps will not get done!

    Thanks for this. I am growing ever more tired of being told to "Live in the now!" Sometimes, I'd rather be elsewhere when I'm working out--it's my escape time and I'll get back to reality in about an hour!

  15. Crabby, as so often happens, you have hit exactly what I so often think. I agree that mindfulness is a great idea, but sometimes I think that those who preach it loudest are mostly mindful of just how great they are when compared to the rest of us pathetic (mindless?) types. Sure, there's a place for it, but it's not everywhere.

    So in trying to find its ideal spot, I made a mindfulness effort as I ran today. It just was not going to be a great running day & thought it might help. I guess I'll be needing to work on that, 'cause I think the stuff I was aware of was not exactly what the mindfulness crowd is advocating. (Another crack in the pavement? How much longer is this hill? Hmm, about 6 car lengths...let's just say the thoughts would not turn me into an serene, enthusiastic runner anytime soon.) Yeah, let's keep some space for more than one approach.

    for me it is not about the mindfulness these days with movement.
    most everything else yes :-) BUT NOT THERE.

  17. The first thing that comes to mind when you combine exercise and mindfulness is BREATHING. Keeping track of my breathing is not an option since I have asthma, but I'm pretty sure it can benefit anyone. Other than that, I like to let my thoughts wander. :-)

  18. Oh - I work out to get OUT OF MY MIND! LOL! This NYT article DOES NOT apply to me! LMFAO!

  19. I can't run - never could. Wa horrible in school when we had to run for gym. I can do the elliptical, ride a bike, climb stairs, but I can't run.

    Mindfulness is hard too. i guess I'm just a mess. :-P


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