One of my friends who is a music education professor recommended the book Mindfulness by Ellen J. Langer to me, and said it was one of the books he gave out most to others as a gift (and he kindly gave it to me as a gift shortly after telling me about it). The word “mindfulness” has become a popular buzz word in the fitness industry with the rise of mind/body exercises like Yoga and Pilates, and there are certainly proven health benefits to these types of mind/body exercises.
But the book Mindfulness looks at physiological studies that show how we have a tendency to get locked into a mindset, and can make bad decisions without even thinking about it. We limit ourselves to what is possible, and as a result we become inhibited. This isn’t the power of positive thinking per se, but changing the context of the way we think about the things we do and why we do them. It means active thinking. It means not setting a limit on what we can do because of our circumstances or perceived limitations.
One example given in the book is how in 1922 it was thought to be humanly impossible to run a mile in less than four minutes…until Roger Bannister broke that limit in 1952 (the current record stands at 3:43.13 set in 1999, in case you were interested.) The point being that we can be surprised at what we can accomplish when we push ourselves beyond what we believe is our limit.
How does this apply to exercise? Being mindful can have a tremendous impact on our motivation to exercise, how we perform, and how we exercise self-control.
Here are some examples of how being mindful can help you overcome some common obstacles to regular exercise:
- You’re too tired to exercise – Fatigue can be a premature cognitive commitment, meaning that if you tell yourself you’re too tired to exercise, you’ll be too tired to exercise. For example, imagine you’re just finishing up a long day at work, and you decide you’re too tired to exercise so you go home, with the intent to veg out on the couch. Just then, your best friend from out of town calls you up and says she’s in town for the evening and wants to go out for drinks. What would you do? More than likely, you rush out the door and meet your friend for drinks and hang out at the bar until midnight. You’ve totally forgotten about your fatigue that prevented you from going to the gym. So fatigue can be a state of mind. Instead, change your mindset by telling yourself that you’ll feel better after going to the gym for just 30 minutes, and that this is just a task you need to complete before going home to rest.
- You hate doing ______ for exercise – Perhaps you don’t exercise because you say “I hate jogging”, or “I hate burpees”, or “I hate going to the gym because everyone is a meathead.” When you say this, you’re fixing a category in your mind that exercise is this one thing. Do you hate jogging for cardio? Try other types of cardio like bicycling, swimming, Zumba class, or a dance class. Hate burpees? Try a similar exercise to get your heart rate up like jumping jacks, medicine ball slams, or jump rope. Hate the gym with the meatheads? Look for a gym that has the classes, equipment, or ambiance that appeals to you. The point is, rather than fixing your mind that you don’t like exercise because you don’t like a particular thing, look for other options to accomplish your goals. Giving yourself more options and choices can increase your motivation.
- You don’t have the motivation to diet/exercise – Sustainable motivation to exercise has to be an internal mind set. When the mind is in a context, the body will be in that context. To illustrate, the book cites an experiment on hunger that was conducted to compare the feeling of hunger between people who had chosen to fast for a prolonged period of time for personal reasons (such as religious reasons) with those who were paid to fast as part of the study. Those who had the external motivation of getting paid reported more hunger than those who chose to fast for their own personal reasons. Interestingly, those who had that internal motivation showed less of an increase in free fatty acid levels, a physical indicator of hunger. The point being, that an external motivator like a fitness challenge my have some initial success, but for long term motivation, you have to change your mindset, and the body will follow. How do you get that motivation? Think about the benefits and positive impact healthy changes will have on your life. Find your “why” for regular exercise, and your body will fall in line.
These are just some of the ways you could apply a mindful outlook to your fitness routine. The bottom line is this – many of the obstacles we face with our health and fitness goals are self-imposed mental constructs. Take a mindful approach to your health, and you’ll be able to overcome these obstacles.