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Mindfulness is awareness that arises from being fully present in the moment. It's the opposite of living our lives in autopilot. It's well established that practising mindfulness can alleviate all sorts of mental and physical health problems, and I think it can also be applied to the area of health and fitness.

I'm a psychologist writing this article for a website dedicated to people interested in health and fitness. So why on earth would I pick a topic like mindfulness? Psychologists are interested in understanding thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Visitors to a fitness website are probably interested in imrpoving their strength and cardiovascular fitness. What can either group possibly learn from a concept that focuses on being still in the present moment, often via the use of formal meditation techniques?

Quite a lot, actually. It turns out that focusing on experiencing your life in the present moment can have an enormous influence on your health and your emotional well-being. In recent decades, an American doctor by the name of Jon Kabat-Zinn has used mindfulness practice as a way of addressing many physical and mental health problems associated with a modern Western lifestyle. This article is based on his programme of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR. And I would conjecture that a mindful approach to exercise can make any fitness regime not only more enjoyable, but probably more efficient, too.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is all about deliberately paying attention to the present moment. It's a concept that you find in many different philosophies and religions. Mindfulness is the antidote to living life in autopilot. Most people will have experienced the phenomenon of driving somewhere and realising upon their arrival that they have no recollection of the journey. Or eating a meal in front of the television or computer without really tasting any of it. That's autopilot. Then there is the experience of being so caught up in a stream of thoughts – planning your day/week/year ahead or raking over the past – that you barely register what is happening right now. Mindfulness is the opposite of autopilot. It's about experiencing the present moment as it is. It's not dissimilar from what athletes describe as “flow” - that feeling of being so immersed in what you're doing right now that everything else falls away.

Mindfulness teachers describe mindfulness as awareness that arises from

  • paying attention
  • on purpose
  • in the present moment
  • non-judgmentally
  • to things as they are

It is a gentle, appreciative and nurturing practice.

This is quite different from how most of us live our lives most of the time. Modern life is all about multi-tasking, planning and organising, and being constantly available and assailed by a host of different media. Of course, there are many advantages to this mode of thinking and being, not least the fact that our brains' amazing capacity to plan and analyse is probably an important factor in the evolution of our species. But when it all gets so frantic that we feel like we're not really living our lives; when we get stressed and anxious and depressed and ill, there's a clear indication that something needs to change.

Mindfulness practice

The good news is that change is available to anyone who really wants it. Practising mindfulness is deceptively simple – it's mostly about paying close attention to your breath and your body in the present moment – but you do need to commit to it. Ideally, you need to make time for a little bit of formal meditation practice each day, as well as trying to stop and really experience the world as often as you can throughout the day. You can attend formal courses on mindfulness where you will learn different meditation techniques and be guided through the process of living your everyday life more mindfully. The meditation can take various forms: There are sitting meditations where you focus on your breathing and bodily sensations, body scan meditations where you pay attention to a specific part of your body at a time, movement meditations where you do gentle stretches, and even walking meditations. People can be a little intimidated by the idea of meditation, but the practice is really very simple.

How can we apply concepts from mindfulness to the gym environment?

I've already mentioned athletes and the idea of “flow.” They describe this as a state of complete focus and concentration but also effortlessness, when everything else falls away. Athletes often achieve their best results in this state. Flow is similar to mindfulness in that it involves being completely present in the moment, putting all worries and thoughts about the rest of your life to one side, and focusing on one particular thing.

Now consider the antithesis of flow: You're in the gym. You have to do twenty minutes on the treadmill because that's part of your fitness plan. You've slightly lost track of why exactly you have to do this. It's a chore. So you put on your headphones or watch whatever television is available, or lose yourself in speculations about fellow gym users. You're not really there on the treadmill, you're just trying to get those twenty minutes over with as fast as you can.

This seems problematic to me on two levels. First of all, it's a little instance of wishing your life away. You're not really experiencing those twenty minutes because your mind is somewhere else altogether. Secondly, I would speculate that it's not the most efficient way of working out. I'm not aware of any research into this topic, but I would guess that exercising on autopilot would leave you more vulnerable to injuries and less likely to improve your fitness than if you really pay attention to what you're doing.

So here's a little suggestion: Next time you're at the gym, see if you can work out mindfully. Remove all distractions as far as possible. Pay attention to your breathing if you find your mind wandering (and it will – that's what minds do, and it's okay; a lot of mindfulness is about becoming aware of wandering minds and bringing them back to the present moment); use your breath to anchor yourself to the present moment of your experience. Finally, really focus on the minutiae of what you're doing, as if you were doing it all for the first time. What sensations are you experiencing in your body as you move? Breathe with these sensations. I would bet that you can experience your workout in an entirely new way just by doing it mindfully.