Mindful at the Gym

About a gazillion studies have established that a consistent regime of cardiovascular and weight-bearing exercise is good for just about everything. Weight loss? Check. Chronic health conditions? Yes. Buffering against depression? Absolutely. You may have even resolved to go to the gym more regularly in 2019.

But if you're anything like me, working out is a mixed bag.

On the one hand, you're doing good things for the body and mind. On the other hand, gyms can be weird places where all our insecurities come out, where we feel great about ourselves one minute and lousy the next. That can be a serious bummer.

And that’s even if we get to the gym in the first place. Many of us have goals of becoming more active, but struggle to find the time. And now we’re supposed to include exercise and meditation in our daily routine? It can get a little overwhelming.

So what to do? Do both at the same time. Here are four ways to do it.

1. Mindfulness of the Body

Let’s say you're at the gym, lifting weights or galloping away on some weird elliptical thing. Instead of staring at the TV, or thinking, comparing, wondering, or wanting, you can direct your attention to the body, just like you’re meditating “on the cushion.”

You can start by setting the intention: For the next five minutes I am going to really notice this body. Then, start to notice. If you’re lifting weights, bring your attention - gently, kindly - to the sensation of lift, of burn, of heaviness. Really feel it. If you’re on that elliptical, feel the hilarious, roly-poly motion of the machine. Whatever you’re doing, do it fully, and put your full attention into it.

Or suppose you’re running, indoors or outdoors. Feel yourself running. Feel muscle, bone, tendon, breath. Feel movement. Feel the thud, thud, thudding of your sneakered feet hitting the ground (or concrete, or treadmill). If you’re aching, really know the ache in your joints.

At the very least, you’re checking off both meditation and exercise boxes at once. But you might also find that placing your attention on what’s happening in your body will get you out of the thoughts spinning around in your head.

2. Kindness

I’m a competitive person. When I go out running, I don’t like it when other people pass me on my route. But I’m a pretty slow runner these days, so it’s a pretty common occurrence. This summer I was running in a popular park, and everyone and their mom was passing me up. Young people, old people, everyone in between. I started to feel disheartened.

And then something weird happened: kindness kicked in. I started celebrating them: “Oh good job! You just passed me! You’re so strong! Keep going!” The inner cheerleader got happy, focusing on others’ well-being. Now this is my favorite running practice. I consciously shift my attention to gratitude for all of us, out there doing our thing, sweating and panting and pounding the pavement, or doing whatever other kind of early morning frolicking.

Whenever you’re about to head into a workout, you can set the intention to be kind to your fellow exercisers. You can even use kindness phrases. Like: may we all be healthy and strong. Or: good for us for getting out there! Go us! Kindness meditation for others is a great way to be strong and happy at the same time. And it’s definitely better than cycling between judging others and judging yourself.

3. Body Scan

One of 10% Happier’s podcast producers, Samuel, is an Ironman triathlete. He uses mindfulness all the time. He told me that he often splits his 112 mile bike ride (!) into thirty second chunks. For thirty seconds, he focuses on the feeling of his his feet on the pedals. Then for the next thirty seconds, he feels his breath. Then he focuses on his shoulders. Then the hands. By scanning through body parts in sequence, Samuel builds balance and composure. And takes those 112 miles half a minute at a time.

You can also do a body scan if you’re practicing yoga. Instead of focusing on the unpleasantness of stretching a tight hamstring or holding boat pose for ten breaths, you can use the poses to be acutely aware of body parts you might not usually feel. It can be quite interesting to notice the bare sensations in your outer calf muscle, or lower ribs, or whatever body part is speaking to you in the pose. Of course, you can always do a gentle scan at the end, in resting pose (if you’re not asleep).

4. Focus on Form

Another tip from Samuel: When exhaustion kicks in, Samuel directs his attention to a single element of his form, which can get lax when the body gets tired. By focusing on form, he draws the attention away from fatigue and can keep going a little longer, and then a little longer, and then a little longer - until he reaches his goal. Sound familiar? Kind of like every other worthwhile thing you might do in your life? Yeah, mindfulness can train you for that.

One of our teachers on the app, George Mumford, taught meditation to Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and many other elite athletes. He often says that meditation is like practicing freedom in every moment. Because that’s what we’re doing. Running. Biking. Lifting. But also finding freedom along the way. That’s the journey. I hope yours is a good one.


Harness your mental ability and toughness in this practice from George Mumford, world-renowned meditation teacher and author of 'The Mindful Athlete'. In this meditation George will get you ready for whatever curveballs life throws at you next.


Devon Hase