From the time you wake up until the time you go to bed, how much time do you take to just sit, breathe, and be present with yourself? If you’re like most people, especially in the duality of the smart-phone age and the “go hard or go home” mentality, you may find that you spend very little time being tuned in with yourself.
The mind is utilized in everything we do—it is our body’s information processor and determines how you react to external factors and variables. It doesn’t see sunlight. We see sunlight and tell the brain how to perceive it. The brain is also plastic, meaning it can change throughout life. Therefore, we can train for mental adaptations just as we train for physical ones by utilizing a mindful practice technique.
Mindfulness is an important tenant for you to truly win your day and forge better relationships with the self and others, your daily training and eating, and to reduce stress.
Masking stress, rather than managing it, is one of the biggest factors I find that prevents people from reaching their health goals. High levels of chronic stress (often caused by lack of quality sleep) can lead to psychological and emotional stress, weight gain, weakened immune system, and low energy levels, thus affecting training, recovery, and mental outlook. Oftentimes we hold onto stress without even noticing. While you’re reading this, relax your shoulders from your ears, unclench your jaw, and release your breath. Next time you feel stressed, try turning your attention towards the stressor, taking a deep breath, accepting it, and then reacting to it appropriately.
Now, a lot of times when we think of mindfulness, we think of sitting still and meditating over an extended period of time. While meditation is an effective way of training yourself to be more mindful, it is just one of many ways to implement some kind of mindful practice into your daily routine.
You can start by simply changing your mind’s approach to eating and training.
Mindful and distraction-free eating can facilitate a healthier, sustainable relationship with your food and health.
You can start being more mindful by changing the way you approach certain foods. Modern diet-culture categorizes foods as either “good” or “bad” which creates a stressful relationship around food. These societal labels can invoke feelings of guilt or shame when “bad” foods are consumed. More often than not, dieting is not sustainable for long-term health. Eat without judgment, and feel enjoyment and satisfaction with what you are consuming. Understand that the one green smoothie you drink isn’t going to make a difference to your health, and neither will one donut. Follow your eating with the 80/20 Pareto Principle. As long as you are eating more vegetables, fresh, and whole foods, the rest will fall into place.
Distracted eating tends to lead to over-eating and can make you feel unsatisfied after eating. Imagine eating popcorn while watching a movie versus only focusing on the individual kernels approaching your mouth. Most times, before the movie even starts, my bucket is already empty because the screen distracts me. Take away the movie and you will likely feel more fulfilled and satisfied after eating fewer handfuls. Being present while you are eating lets your brain register what you are putting into your body, thereby aiding in portion control and satiation, not to mention enjoyment. Limiting distractions while eating can help you become more aware of your hunger, satiety, food preferences, and intolerances.
Being more mindful while eating can also help you tune in with how certain foods make you feel. Almost 20% of the world’s population has some sort of food intolerance or sensitivity affecting health and quality of life. Many times, adverse reactions (like bloating, fatigue, digestive issues) or food hypersensitivities (for example, it’s actually more rare to be able to digest lactose than to be lactose-intolerant) are normalized by the body and go unnoticed. These adverse reactions affect everything you do, including your energy levels, your training, and your ability to recover. For example, imagine how nauseous you would feel going for that set of jump squats with a bloated stomach from an adverse reaction versus when your body is at its regular homeostasis.
Start by listening to your body. You can start a food journal to help delve deeper into your habits, what you eat, when you eat it, and how it makes you feel. Then, try to eat a couple of meals a week without any distractions. You’ll start to notice links between what you put in your body and what your body subsequently tells you, thus improving your relationship with food.
Your time in the gym is so much more than just picking things up and putting them back down. It is an opportunity to build mind-body awareness. Being mindful during exercise allows you to be present to concentrate on the work you have at hand, and in turn, the physical movement of your muscles and body. Honing in on the connection between the mind and body can also lead to better muscle activation and increased strength, thus accelerating your physical capabilities and progress towards your fitness goals. In other words, focusing on the present moment during your workout can lead to more productive work.
In addition, random thoughts, distractions, boredom, dwelling on future goals or outcomes are all common roadblocks holding people back from reaching their peak physical exertion during a workout (whether you’re lifting weights or going on a run, etc). It can be challenging not to get lost in distracting thoughts during a workout: “How many more reps do I have? Let’s just stop here. My body is so exhausted.” The key is to recognize those incoming thoughts, breathe and let them go, then refocus on the current set or the next one coming up. What you’re eating for dinner or how sore you’ll be the next day can wait till you’re done.
Being mindful of how your body feels can aid in stress reduction. Working out imposes stress on the body, but your body cannot decipher between stress that is “good” or “bad.” Stress is just stress and it accumulates. Pushing through a challenging workout will only continue to add to your stress levels. Lack of sleep is one of the biggest causes of stress and fatigue when working out. Sometimes it is better to lower the intensity and let the body recover. Listening to how your body feels can help facilitate recovery and reduce the risk of injury or overuse.
Try this before your next workout to slow down, regain focus, and bring awareness to the mind and body as you prepare for the workout ahead of you. Start by lying on your back with your arms and legs extended, or sit tall with your legs crossed, whichever way makes you feel comfortable. Once you’ve found your position, inhale deeply through your nose, filling up your lungs with as much air as possible for a four-count, and then hold it there for two. Next, exhale through your mouth for a six-count. Repeat. You can put a hand on your chest and stomach to feel them rise and fall with each breath. Repeat this for three to five breaths. You’ll start to notice your attention shift towards your body and away from thinking about everything else you have to do. After the workout, you may find that the stress you were facing isn’t as bad as you once thought.
When you are tuned in to yourself, you will be able to tune in to everything else around you with clarity and purpose. But it starts with winning the self and bringing intent to what you’re doing at any point in time.
Start by finding a mindfulness technique that works for you. You can journal, read, go for a walk, workout, cook, eat, meditate, or simply just take several deep breaths. Personally, I like to take some time in the morning or before bed to do some light stretching and breathing. It’s a great stress reduction strategy that also can further facilitate recovery and relaxation.
Whatever activity you choose, just bring intent to what you are doing in the moment. Use this time to be fully present, immersed, involved, and enjoying the process.