The new buzzword in the fitness industry is ‘Mind-Body’ exercise. This primarily includes yoga, pilates, Tai Chi, Qigong etc where the mind-body connection is unmistakable. The instructions are focused on the breath and a very deliberate association is made between breath and movement. The focus is on the mindfulness of the activity. Other forms of fitness don’t seem to make this connection quite so obviously. This false differentiation however makes it appear as if all other forms of fitness (like running, aerobic dance, strength training) do not involve the mind. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Every single form of exercise needs to be a mind-body activity.
A major part of fitness is about the mind. Determination, cognition, motivation, perseverance and dedication. Qualities without which one cannot hope to persist with one’s fitness routine day after day. It may seem as if physical fitness is just that — a “physical” intervention. But it is not really completely physical, is it? There are times when the body is reluctant to complete that last mile, pick up the weights or go through a yoga routine. It is one’s mind that is then responsible for following through. It’s the mind that also responds to the workout in a positive way, enhancing mood, giving you clarity of thought and opening up your senses.
Weight training – Strength training, for instance, cannot be a mindless activity one participates in while having an animated conversation with a friend in the gym. There has to be total focus on the weight being used, the rhythm and pattern of breathing that has to follow the movement (exhaling during the effort for instance), the muscles being worked and the correct ‘form’ of the exercise. How can it not be a mind-body exercise then? If one is not mindful while training with weights, chances of injury are extremely high.
The breath is the essence of life, obviously, but I often see the gym rat glowing blue in the face as he/she tries to force a movement while simultaneously holding the breath and paying no attention to what the body is telling. Catastrophic! Even experienced exercisers and trainers constantly need to be reminded of their breathing pattern while training with weights. So the next time, instead of watching your neighbour in the gym, focus on your own breathing and exercise instead. Focus on which muscles in your body are working to lift the weight. Focus on keeping your core stable, spine aligned and your body weight balanced evenly between your feet. Focus on what you are pushing your body to do. Listen to what it is telling you in response.
While building muscles, finishing those last few reps when your muscles are begging you to stop is possible only with the right mental attitude.
Cardio – Although some people enjoy their cardio, many find it extremely dreary and/or difficult. You can trick your mind into enjoying it by adding fun to the activity. If you cannot go for a run or use the cross trainer, why not try one of the new cardio classes with music and other exercisers that add to the thrill, making one forget the actual work done.
Here are some ways in which your mind is clearly called into play during a cardio routine:
— Memorising choreography in a class requires concentration of the mind
— You have to stay alert and aware through complicated classes
— Pushing through the last few minutes or a challenging phase of a routine takes ‘will power’, a function of the brain.
The mind has to focus, learn and commit to memory when you are taken through a complicated aerobic/step/kickboxing class with choreography and music. Yes your mind is working. There is no question about it. There are students who will swear they have two left feet, they are deaf and have no clue about music. Somehow, with practice, their body learns to adapt to a new kind of movement. It learns to listen to and understand rhythm. All this is possible when the mind is alert. All this is also possible because the brain is capable of creating new networks with new stimulus. Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF) that is released during exercise airs in neural growth and development. The release of endorphins during exercise changes the physiology of the brain making one more ‘open’, positive and in a better frame of mind.
Researchers (Kramer, Erickson and Colcombe, 2006; and Hillman and Van Prag, 2008) found that regular exercise creates new pathways, new cells (neurogenesis) and improved blood flow (vascularity) in the brain thereby improving cognition, multitasking even while dealing with ambiguity. Regular exercise increases decision-making ability, problem-solving capability, creativity and working memory. These functions normally decline with age. Regular exercise therefore could prevent this decline paving the way for a better quality of life.
The mind is used to exercise effectively and exercise in turn improves brain function. All fitness activities have a mind-body connection. This is more palpable when one focuses on the activity in hand. When one is open to learning and understanding; and when one is conscious and mindful.
The author is a lifestyle medicine physician and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. www.drsheelanambiar.com