Make Movement Mindful: Slow Down and Pay Attention for Better Results

By Meagan McCrary

Traditionally rooted in meditation, the popular and ever-growing mindfulness movement has hit the gym for a calmer, clearer mental state alongside a more productive and satisfying workout.

Simply put, mindfulness is moment-to-moment awareness; the mind completely focused (or full of) on whatever is taking place. It’s both the formal practice of paying purposeful attention to our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and surrounding environment with nonjudgmental awareness, as well as the state of being fully present. Which doesn’t necessarily mean sitting still.

As it turns out, movement presents the perfect opportunity to practice mindfulness—creating a stronger mind-body connection while simultaneously improving the results of any exercise routine. Plus, it’s more enjoyable.

The case for mindfulnes

A recent study published in the Journal of Health Psychology suggests that mindfulness makes the experience of exercising more satisfying. Researchers at Utrecht University in the Netherlands found that people who intentionally focused on the feeling of movement and deliberately observed their surroundings while exercising reported higher levels of satisfaction (consequently they exercised more).   

But that’s not all, according to a new study from Penn State University, practicing mindfulness amplifies the mental and emotional benefits of exercising.

Both physical activity and mindfulness practices (particularly mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MSBR, techniques) are well-known for reducing stress and anxiety, as well as depression, and improving sleep quality, mood and energy levels. Combining the two has proved to enhance training results. However, most of us are easily distracted by our thoughts, busy making our to-do lists, worrying, analyzing or ruminating over a situation, missing out on the mental benefits of exercise.

Movement trains the brain

However, in order to be more present more often, you must practice being and staying present—you have to train your brain to remain focused. In other words, you’ve got to strengthen your mindfulness muscle.

Neuroscientists have proved that movement not only works out the body but also trains the brain. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to adapt in response to experiences, creating new neural pathways and reorganizing itself according to how it’s being used or not being used. The areas of your brain that you use become bigger, richer and stronger the more they are used, while the parts used less frequently become smaller and less effective.

Neuroscientists have discovered that the same areas and structures of the brain that are active in cognitive function (all aspects of thinking, reasoning, evaluating, judging, remembering and feeling) are active during movement. Consequently, the mental processes taking place during physical activity, including your thoughts, judgments, emotions and attitudes, are reinforced. Meaning that whatever you think, perceive and feel — whether you’re present or distracted—while you’re moving is essentially training the brain to think, perceive, feel and respond in those ways, greatly impacting your outlook, happiness and well-being.

All the more reason to incorporate mindfulness into your movement routine!

Move with mindfulness

Exercising mindfully means that you’re purposefully paying close attention to your body—to the way you move, how and where you place your feet and hands, what you’re experiencing and feeling—to all the subtle nuances and sensations taking place internally and externally.

It’s essentially the opposite of putting on headphones and tuning out on the treadmill or throwing your body through a fast-paced circuit workout. While zoning out may seem desirable (and gets “the job” done), by simply not paying attention, you’re missing out.

We tend to reserve the description “mind-body” for practices such as yoga and tai chi. But the truth is that any physical exercise can be intentionally used to establish a healthier, more balanced mind-body connection leading to greater emotional resilience (i.e., the ability to handle and adapt to a stressful situation that negatively affects your physical health).

You’ll also feel your own strength and power if you check in during workouts. Not only does mindfulness increase the overall satisfaction of exercising, paying attention to what you’re doing and experiencing without judgment also allows for greater appreciation for what your body can do rather than just whether you met your goals.

That said, being present, paying attention to the way you move, and noticing what you are experiencing as you exercise can boost the results of your workout. Remaining focused on what you’re doing serves to improve your form and the quality of your movement, preventing injury and producing more targeted results.

Sold? The following tips will help make any exercise routine more mindful.

Set an intention. To start, set the intention to pay attention to your immediate experience without judgment. Mindfulness isn’t just paying attention—it’s accepting what is in the present moment with an open awareness. So before you start working out, take a vow of kindness and call on it when you slip into “comparing” mode.

Tap into bodily sensations. In other words, feel what’s going on in your body as you move. Notice the way the bottoms of your feet feel in your shoes against the floor, the areas of your body involved in the movement (the contraction of certain muscles), the temperature of the air against your skin, etc.

Slow down. It’s nearly impossible to pay close attention to the way we are moving and what we are feeling going at full speed (especially at first). Slow down and allow your mind to catch up with your body. Notice your tendency to want to go faster and for the mind to check out.

Notice your environment. Rather than getting lost in your thoughts or zoning out to music, intentionally take in your surroundings the next time you go for a walk or jog. Check out what’s around you, notice the squirrels and the trees and whatever else is taking place.

Stay on target. Inevitably, your mind will wander. Remember to be kind, and gently remind yourself again and again to return your focus to what’s happening in the present moment. “I am here. I am doing this.”

Video credit: ReeldealHD, Shutterstock
Photo credit: Jacob Lund, Adobe Stock; Alora Griffiths, Unsplash; Biletskiy_Evgeniy, Thinkstock; F8 Studio, Shutterstock


Don’t leave without becoming a 24Life Insider! Get free 24Life workouts, recipes, lifestyle hacks and more direct to your inbox.


Meagan McCrary

Meagan McCrary is an experienced yoga teacher, freelance writer and author of "Pick Your Yoga Practice: Exploring and Understanding Different Styles of Yoga". She has been featured in Yoga Journal, Om Yoga Magazine, Mantra Yoga Magazine and Sweat Equity Magazine, and regularly contributes to YogaUonline.com. Highly knowledgeable in biomechanics and posture alignment, as well as restorative yoga practices, she has a passion for helping people find more ease, comfort and functionality in their bodies through a variety of modalities. Living and teaching in Southern California, Meagan teachers and works with a variety of clients specializing in yoga therapeutics, postural awareness, pain relief and prenatal yoga. You can also join her on one of her popular retreats.