The key to becoming fitter? It’s all in the mind

It’s a tricky time of year. We often start out with plans to make this the year to get fit, but, by now, sticking to our workout routine might be getting, well, a little harder than we’d hoped.

When it comes to fitness, training the mind is now considered every bit as important as training the body. It’s continually proven that a strong, trained mind makes it easier to get and stay fit, achieve our goals, and – with no extra effort required – even improve our fitness levels.

A recent study into self-awareness and exercise by Dr Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychologist, clearly showed the impact of the mind. She found that if participants increased their levels of awareness during workout routines, on average, they:

  • Lost two pounds in weight
  • Reduced body fat content
  • Reduced systolic blood pressure by ten points

Awareness was the only thing that changed to achieve these results. No more exercise was involved, or at a greater intensity. Absolutely no additional hard work was required. Now that’s my kind of workout!

How to get motivated to exercise

These results are incredible. But of course to achieve them, first we need an exercise plan that we’ll keep up. And whatever we choose, to give our plan the very best chance of lasting, we must begin with the mind. Establishing, and sticking with a workout routine isn’t easy. It takes commitment, focus and motivation, plus patience, and willingness. And when we’re tired, busy or just can’t face another run in the rain, an untrained mind sets to work building these barriers. And guess what? Our exercise plan starts to slide…

But when our mind is strong, fit and healthy, we can stop obstacles like tiredness, or the weather, from blocking our goals. Our mind defines our relationships with our body, our approach to fitness, engagement with exercise, and ultimately, the way we apply this vitality to everyday life. And this is why in exercise, mindfulness is so important.

Learn to overlook the barriers

Professor Judson Brewer, Medical Director of Therapeutic Neuroscience at Yale University Medical School, explains: “When we go to put our shoes for a run, the mind may say, “It’s cold, it’s raining, this is going to suck, and I can’t do it.” Mindfulness training helps us to recognise these are just thoughts dancing through our head. So, they become less ‘sticky’ and we’re less likely to flop back down on the sofa or watch TV.

“Learning to take these thoughts with a pinch of salt like this means that we can be less involved in thinking, and instead, get on with what we need to do.” No wonder mindfulness is one of the hottest topics in neuroscience.

So, instead of an untrained mind’s preference to put up barriers, and put off until tomorrow, with regular mindfulness, we can recognise these are simply thoughts we can choose to overlook. And by overlooking them, we can stop over-thinking – and instead, make our exercise plan a success, and make this the year.

Ten top tips for getting mind-fit

When it comes to training the body, our minds need regular workout routines too. But how do we keep the mind in the peak fitness it needs to help our bodies become fitter?

Taking a tip from professional athletes, it’s all about mental balance – a place that lies between ‘committed focus’ and ‘relaxed ease’. Applied to the body, the right balance helps exercise flow naturally and effectively. Applied to the mind, mental balance gives us the awareness to make the most of the moment we’re exercising in. The results for both are:

  • Increased levels of enjoyment
  • A more sustainable workout
  • Improved results

So how do we train our minds to find their balance? To sit comfortably with both a commitment and focus to exercise, while feeling relaxed enough to give the body a sense of ease and efficiency? Most sports scientists agree it stems from self-awareness. This means taking a step back from our constant stream of thoughts to give the mind space to become aware of the moment.Mindfulness, through meditation, familiarises us with being in the present moment. It shows us that when we’re not distracted by thoughts, we can simply focus on the exercise we’re doing, and use this clarity to perform to our full potential and achieve our best results.As an athlete needs intensive gym training to strengthen the muscles, the mind needs short periods of intensive training – using meditation, instead of weights, to keep it fit and strong.Ready to train?Try these top tips:

  1. Learn how to meditate. Sharpen your focus, relax your mind and set your mental balance. Try our free Take 10 programme to see how you can apply mindfulness to everyday life.
  2. Understand your motivation. What do you really want from your workout? Once this is clear, you’re much more likely to achieve your goals.
  3. Set realistic goals. Aim too high and you’ll become disappointed. Identify the small steps and you’ll be on your way to a long, steady and successful journey.
  4. Create a new habit. Same place, same time is crucial, so find a space and time in the diary when you know you can make it happen.
  5. Use your imagination. Mentally rehearsing your exercise is proven to give quicker results and boost your confidence. Professional athletes have done this for decades – join them!
  6. Think less, do more. Use mindfulness to retain your focus on the present moment. Let go of your passing thoughts and enjoy a more focused, productive workout.
  7. Be flexible. Things don’t always go to plan, so when you miss a session or two – just accept it and get going again the very next day.
  8. Have fun! Exercise is inherently fun; don’t push so hard you lose sight of this. Instead of your workout feeling like a chore, appreciate it as time out of a busy day.
  9. Congratulate yourself. Feel good about completing your workout; it’ll make the mind calmer, more content and friendlier.
  10. Integrate your fitness. Whether that’s cycling to work or playing more energetically with the children – look for opportunities to use your new-found fitness within everyday life.

For more information please go to www.headspace.com

BOE Magazine