For many of us, the change in season signifies a barrier to health. Trail hikes, park runs, playground visits, even short walks to the car en route to a heated gym seem less attractive in the bitter cold. It becomes difficult to overcome the urge to stay warm and indoors, protected from the shortened days and cold nights. And the whole process becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: We expect for the frigid temperatures to limit our activity, and then allow this feeling to guide our decision to choose inactivity over the alternative.
This isn’t news to us; articles abound on ramping up exercise motivation in cold weather. So let’s consider this article a slight deviation from what’s likely a stale holiday-time theme. Rather, let’s think of this as encouragement for some self-exploration: to examine your relationship with exercise during this time of year, and how it guides your own behaviors toward – or away from – healthy living.
If this sounds like an exercise in mindfulness, you’re right. Think of what it would mean for you to pay attention differently – with greater intention, with complete non-judgment – to your thoughts about exercise, and about exercise itself. That’s largely what mindfulness is: paying attention on purpose, instead of falling into old, habitual, potentially toxic ways of focusing and thinking. We would likely begin to look at our thoughts (“I’m too lazy to walk on the treadmill today”, “I’ll start exercising after New Year’s”) curiously and with distance from them – able to question their validity and act separately from them – and not necessarily as truthful statements that must be believed or obeyed. We would approach a workout with openness, even if we know the act of exercising may bring up feelings such as fear of muscular pain or incompetence over not performing exercises as well as the person beside you.
Bringing an openness, or a sort of purposeful attention, to our experience with exercise can change how the actual exercise itself feels, and its effects on us. Mark Williams and colleagues wrote The Mindful Way Through Depression and chronicles this tale in a segment called Cultivating Mindfulness. Notice how being open to our experiences can help:
A well-known travel writer was invited to dine at the home of a well-to-do Japanese family. His host had invited a number of guests, letting it known that he had something of a great importance to share. Part of the meal would consist of blowfish, considered a superb delicacy in Japan, in part because these fish are fatally poisonous unless the poison has been removed by a highly skilled chef. To be served such a fish was a great honor.
As guest of honor, the writer received the fish with great anticipation, and savored every mouthful. The taste was, indeed, like nothing he had ever eaten. What, asked his host, did he think of the experience? The guest was ecstatic about the exquisite flavor of the fish he had sampled. He did not have to exaggerate, for it was indeed sublime, among the best food he had ever tasted. Only then did his host reveal that the fish he had eaten was a common variety. Another guest, without realizing it, had eaten the blowfish. The “important thing” the writer learned was not how good a rare and expensive delicacy tasted, but how amazing ordinary food could be if he paid close attention to each mouthful.
Being attentive to the seemingly mundane moments throughout our day – eating, bathing, brushing, driving – helps us savor the experience. Foods taste more flavorful, showers seem more therapeutic, and muscles feel like they’re being worked differently during exercise. While most of us seek to avoid or distract ourselves from workout-induced discomfort, placing our attention on the experience itself is empowering: by monitoring our internal states we feel as though we have control over our bodies. Plus, it’s revealing, just as it is for a child peeking under his bed in search of a monster: trying to avoid something painful or scary usually exacerbates the feeling. Confronting makes us realize there was never really anything to be afraid of.
Here are some examples of how bringing a new kind of attention to exercise can naturally give your workouts some added flavor – just in time for the holidays:
- Place your focus on your breathing while ramping up the aerobic intensity. It’s tempting to distract ourselves with music or the external environment while on the bike or elliptical – and sometimes, that’s a helpful strategy. And often, the times we do attend to our breathing is just to verify how tired we are (“Oh my gosh, I’m so out of breath…this used to be so much easier for me!”) But try placing your attention on your breathing; don’t change it, simply notice it as it is. Your breathing will naturally regulate to healthier, smoother, less rapid levels once we put our gentle awareness on it. Once regulated, try aligning the rhythm of your breathing to the pace of running. You’re more likely to enter a nice flow when breathing is consistent. The way you think is the way you breathe, and the way you breathe is the way you think: consciously bringing your breath to a steady measure will likely bring your mind to balance and tranquility, and make the workout more enjoyable.
- Be “with” the sensory experience of the bicep as it curls the weight. As noted above, we often may wish to avoid focusing on it altogether, as it’s common for exercisers to distract themselves when discomfort hits. Notice the intricacies of the movement itself: the grip of your fingers around the dumbbell, the intention of your arm to begin curling before it actually does, the pinching or burning feeling throughout your arm as the muscle contracts, the pace of your breathing. Being with the exercise may encourage you to slow down your pace and explore in greater depth – and conveniently, there are benefits to performing movements with slowed pace.
- Choose the more scenic option when possible. Opt for the bundled-up walk outdoors (yes, even in frigid temperatures), or simply allow natural light to penetrate your indoor workout space. Studies show that interaction with natural environments can reduce mental fatigue and restore attentional functioning. In a recent study with mothers and their pre-teenage daughters, a walk in nature increased positive interactions and helped restore attention, likely because attention is not being diverted to other technologically-driven stimuli. Plus it’s easier to be mindful of your surroundings when they’re pleasant and interesting – the same can’t always be said on an elliptical or walking around a mall.