You are probably feeling a blast of deja vu, because you’ve been here before. It’s that time of year to commit yourself once more to a new fitness regime – and this time you intend to stick to it. It’s a wonderful time, filled with enthusiasm and potential, where anything is possible. But then February comes, and before you know it, the only reason you go to the gym is to pick up a smoothie on the way to work, or to have a shower after work before going out.
But why does it happen, year after year? What is it that prevents us from sticking to our genuine wish to get fit? And how do such noble resolutions simply slide by the wayside? Well, you need look no further than your own mind. This is not an excuse to beat yourself up for being ill-disciplined in the past – besides, new year is about looking forwards, not back. Instead, it is an opportunity to understand how you can do things differently this year, to ensure that you see your resolutions through to their conclusion, and in doing so, achieve the results you’re looking for. Because whether you need to be more committed, focused, motivated, patient, flexible, or willing, each and every result depends on a strong, fit and healthy mind. Such is the influence of the old grey matter. It defines our relationship with the body, our approach to fitness, our engagement with exercise and, ultimately, our willingness to apply that vitality to everyday life.
So it is no surprise that when it comes to getting fit, and staying fit, training the mind is now considered every bit as important as training the body. And the potential is perhaps greater than most of us realise. Because whether you’re an Olympic athlete or just beginning to commit to regular exercise, training the mind can help in a number of ways. It can improve self-regulation, an essential skill for maintaining a diet and adhering to training regimes; it can improve immune-system functioning, which can speed recovery; perhaps most importantly, it can refine your attention, making it easier to “get into the zone” – that state of effortless flow, free from mental chatter, that allows your body to perform how it knows best. But what does it mean to train the mind, and how do we do it?
Well, one of the most popular mind-training techniques in sport now is the practice of mindfulness. Part of the attraction is its simplicity – although, admittedly, the technique can take practice. Essentially, mindfulness is the ability to rest the mind in the moment, focused on a specific object or task, and to create a relaxed but alert state of mind. From a workout point of view, this means putting the mind into the muscle, bringing a greater awareness to the physical body and the sensations within it. The theory of this technique is that in being able to step back from the inner dialogue and witness thoughts from a place of awareness, it can give us a greater perspective on our thoughts, emotions and physical sensations. And in being less distracted by those things, we are able to “think less” and “do more”.
Professor Judson Brewer, medical director of therapeutic neuroscience at Yale University’s school of medicine, explains it like this: “When we go to put on our shoes for a run, and the mind says, ‘It’s cold out, it’s raining, this is going to suck, I can’t do this’, mindfulness training helps us to recognise that these are just thoughts dancing through our head. So they become less ‘sticky’ and we’re less likely to flop back down on the sofa for a nap, or to watch television. When we learn to take these thoughts with a pinch of salt like this, we can then be less involved in thinking, and instead get on and do what we need to do – whether it’s getting to the gym, or eating healthier food.”
It’s compelling stuff and no coincidence that mindfulness has become one of the hottest topics in neuroscience. In a recent study by Harvard psychologist Professor Ellen Langer, it was found that by simply making people more self-aware of the exercise they were doing, they reduced their average blood pressure by 10 points, lost two pounds and even reduced their body fat when compared to a control group. By informing a group of cleaners that the work they did was good exercise and satisfied the requirements for a healthy lifestyle, those cleaners perceived themselves getting significantly fitter over a four-week period than the control group who hadn’t been told this – this information alone caused the physical changes. This suggests we can become healthier, and even lose weight, by becoming more aware of the exercise we do rather than increasing the amount of activity. Dr Langer concludes: “It is time for us all to explore more direct means of controlling our health, such as pursuing mindfulness as a tool actively and deliberately to change our mindsets.”
But mindfulness is not the only type of mind training to improve our physical performance. Imagery or visualisation-based meditation techniques have long been used to mentally prepare athletes for competition. And this is something we can all make use of, no matter our level of ability. That’s because the more we mentally rehearse an activity, the stronger the neural pathway becomes that is responsible for that action or behaviour.
There have been many tests that show that when we mentally rehearse, we fire up the same part of the brain as if we were doing it for real. And the benefits are not just psychological, with scientific tests showing that we can obtain many physical health benefits through visualisation.
This was demonstrated recently by exercise physiologist Guang Yue at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. In an experiment, a number of unpaid volunteers took part in so-called “mental workouts” five times a week, in which they imagined lifting heavy weights with their arms. Amazingly, tests showed they increased their bicep strength by an average of 13.5%, compared to a control group. It’s not that the muscles got bigger, but rather that the signalling from the brain improved in efficiency. This is great news for people who want to get stronger without building lots of muscle, and reinforces the incredible relationship between the body and mind.
But however you choose to train your mind, make sure that your approach to fitness this year is a more holistic one. As you begin your new year’s health kick and embark on your fitness programme, ensure that you put aside time for taking care of the mind, as well as the body. Not only will you feel better, but you’ll perform better. The outcomes are an enjoyable and sustainable experience.
Andy Puddicombe is a co-founder of Headspace
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