Move Your Mind-Body: What Is Mindful Exercise, and Why Should You Try It
Updated: Mar 7, 2019
I’ve been talking lots about mindful exercise recently, as this month is Mindful Movement March. But why should you strap on your shoes and try it? How do you even start?
Why Is Mindful Exercise So Good for You
Training our bodies and our minds at the same time is showing up in the research as being incredibly beneficial – over and above exercise and meditation on their own. A 2016 study (Alderman et al., 2016), showed it reduced depression scores by 40%. More interestingly, it significantly increased something called cognitive control, which is the mind’s ability to consciously choose thoughts and reduce ruminative “thought spirals” that are common to so many mental struggles.
The reason it is more beneficial to do these two activities together is that they work synergistically – the mechanism by which meditation helps the brain reduce mental suffering is amplified by coupling it with movement. Exercise increases the growth of new neurons in the brain, and meditation concentrates that growth in regions that are responsible for cognitive control, learning, and autonomic nervous system regulation. This improved regulation dampens stress and anxiety responses, as well as stops the “shut-down” response of depression and overwhelm.
How do I start Mindful Exercise?
Practicing mindfulness is in itself is a formidable task, given all the demands on our attention. The basic seated meditation instruction is to gently place mind on the present moment usually using some kind of focus or anchor, and when the mind strays (as it does!) the practice is to first notice, let go of judgment, and gently guide the awareness back to the anchor. This anchor is often the breath, but one can also use the feeling of the body on the cushion or chair, a physical sensation, or a mantra.
Mindful exercise employs this exact technique, but uses movement as the anchor. We exercise, while gently placing a keen sense of non-judgmental awareness on the details of the present moment. In mindful movement, one becomes intimate with the intricate physicality of our bodies in motion. The anchor becomes the change in breath, the heart pumping, the feeling of the feet on the ground, or the delicious sensations of stretching and pumping of the muscles, from subtle to intense. One can even expand the awareness to focus on the external environment, including sunshine, wind, temperature, sounds, and the joy of rhythmic movement.
Improve Your Life
Mindfulness is not just for sitting on a meditation cushion. It’s about practicing something so that it leaks out into our daily lives and makes it better. Practicing can help to reduce anxious thought spirals, wondering about what other people think, worry about the future or being stuck in the past, and it can even lessen discomfort with difficult emotions.
Chevy Rough, a mindfulness and performance coach shares that his favourite benefit of mindful exercise is that it’s a release from the distraction of our daily lives. He says distraction can come in the form of other people, noise, technology, but it can also come in the form of cultural pressures, like what we expect of ourselves. He says, "the point is to get out of the conversation you’re having with society and back into a one-on-one convo with your body”(Mateo, 2018).
The beauty is that you can experience the benefits by practicing this skill with any kind of movement. Try mindfulness while taking a 10-minute walking break while at work, while walking your dog, or running, etc. It may be helpful to learn the basics of mindfulness from a guide (or an app), and then take that practice and make it your own. I encourage you to explore mindful movement with gentleness, non-judgment, and curiosity.
1. Alderman, B. L., Olson, R. L., Brush, C. J., & Shors, T. J. (2016). MAP training: combining meditation and aerobic exercise reduces depression and rumination while enhancing synchronized brain activity. Translational psychiatry, 6(2), e726.
2. Li, J., Shen, J., Wu, G. Y., Tan, Y., Sun, Y., Keller, E., ... & Wu, J. (2018). Mindful exercise versus non-mindful exercise for schizophrenia: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Complementary therapies in clinical practice.
3. Edwards, M. K., & Loprinzi, P. D. (2018). Affective Responses to Acute Bouts of Aerobic Exercise, Mindfulness Meditation, and Combinations of Exercise and Meditation: A Randomized Controlled Intervention. Psychological reports, 0033294118755099.