For decades, diet and exercise have been considered the two major components for health. However, more recently we’ve got a step further to look at the role stress plays on overall health and how exercise can help, or in some cases, make the impact of stress worse.
We see exercise celebrated for its benefits; building discipline and resilience, toning muscles and increasing endurance. But when it comes to managing stress, is the most hard-core option really the best for your body and mind?
If you’re approaching exercise on autopilot, you might be getting some of the physical benefits, but missing out entirely on the mental ones.
We all have a default setting that allows us to “do” without being mentally present.
When was the last time you completed a familiar task (like driving to work) and then thought “I have no idea how I just did that. I don’t remember the drive at all.”
Exercise can become that way as well. When you’ve been doing an activity for a long time, it becomes familiar and you lose connection with your body because you aren’t mentally present.
This might mean you’re physically present at the gym, but your mind is still spinning about something your boss said to you, or a conversation you have to have later with your partner.
Combining mindfulness with movement will engage your mind and body and keep you out of a mental (and hormonal) stress cycle during time that’s supposed to be beneficial for your health.
Mindfulness is often mistaken for meditation, but they’re not the same thing.
This is good news for everyone who prefers movement to sitting still — you don’t have to sit still and be quiet for long periods at a time just to practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness means being consciously aware of something.
This begins with being aware of your state – perceiving your thoughts, noticing the emotions that are present and sensations in your body, like the feeling of your feet on the floor, or the texture of your shirt against your skin.
Awareness at this level requires attention to detail. You need to be present and “in” your body in order to feel on this subtle level.
It’s the difference between being all there (physically and mentally present) or half there (physically present, but your mind is thinking of something else).
It’s possible to combine mindfulness with movement. Mindful movement allows you to be embodied, meaning you’re grounded and present energetically and mentally, in your body.
When you’re in this embodied state you’re hyper aware of the movements your body is making and the subtle engagements of your muscles, as well as the rhythm and depth of your breath. It’s a workout for your mind just as much as your body.
Introducing Mindful Movement
Practices like yoga and tai chi are known for being embodied mindful activities. Really, we can bring mindfulness and presence to any type of movement.
Mindful movement practices can (but may not always) be slower and less intense than doing other activities, but don’t mistake mindful movement for easy movement. Paying attention to muscle engagement and focusing on quality movements instead of speed can be challenging and lead to muscle fatigue the same way a fast paced workout can.
Mindful movement incorporates deep breathing and usually synchronises movements with the breath. So while you’re toning or lengthening your muscles, you’re also bringing a lot of oxygen into your blood.
With mindful movement you are concerned with the inner workings of your body as opposed to completing the outward activity or creating muscle definition. You’re working IN rather than working OUT.
The benefits add up too. Mindful movement has a lot of the same benefits as meditation. Things like improved mood, gratitude, greater self-regulation, and a feeling of being grounded.
Mindful Movement for Stress Relief
It’s possible to combine the subtle awareness of meditation with movement, strengthening and endurance of exercise.
In fact, combining the two can create heightened self-awareness and self-correction to enhance performance across all areas of life.
To be fully present in your body, you can’t be worrying about making a deadline, or planning out what’s for supper in your head. This presence calms the nervous system and brings you out of your fight or flight nervous system response, allowing your body to settle down from stress.
Here’s How to Get Started on Moving Mindfully
First off, any movement can be practiced mindfully. Everyday things like washing the dishes, lifting your child out of a crib, or walking down the street to check the mail. Mindful movement doesn’t take any specific form. Here are some tips to get you started moving mindfully.
- Focus inside- the practice begins before you even start moving. Take a minute to notice your breath and pay attention to your inhale and exhale. Then take a scan of your body (it’s helpful to close your eyes for this) and notice what you feel. Where is there tension? What is the quality of your energy today? Think of this like taking a baseline of your body and breath before moving so you know what you’re working with on that day.
- Focus on quality movement- to do this you’ll need to maintain presence and awareness in your body. This is the mental aspect of the workout. That means you’ll need to slow down. Even if you end up doing less in your workout, you’ll be gaining by slowing your nervous system down and allowing your body to do the movements properly.
- Practice, Practice, Practice – with mindful movement you’re flexing your mental muscles as well as physical ones. You’ll need to get used to re-centering your mind and letting go of your thoughts. There’s no such thing as perfect, it’s a practice.
- Start with any movement – bring mindfulness into your everyday movements. You don’t need to carve out extra time in your day for mindful movement, you can start by bringing mindfulness into the movements you’re doing on a regular basis. For example, be present and aware of your body and breath when walking your dog, sitting at your computer or climbing stairs. Adding these little bits of mindful movement into your days will help you re-centre and re-focus inward instead of on outward stressors.