Written by WHEY AHEAD® brand ambassador, Dani Needham
Ah, the gym. Why do so many of us head to this sweaty mecca each week? To get fit? Lose weight? Gain weight? De-stress? Whatever your reason, if you work on your why, then motivation will be easy (If you haven’t found your why yet, read all about Team Whey Ahead’s ‘What, Whey and Why’ Challenge here!) However despite the best motivations, over time we can get trapped in the habit of arriving at the gym and then going through the motions. Yes - you turned up, worked out, took a selfie to prove it, necked your organic whey protein and went home. But how much of that workout did you actually take in?
More often than not, the atmosphere in the gym can actually promote a lack of focus especially during peak evening hours when the place is packed and music is blaring. Combine that environment with a very busy schedule, stress from work or boredom with an exercise routine and it can take all your focus just to count reps instead of thinking about your To Do list. And if you haven’t been coerced into a zombie-like gym-goer by your immediate surroundings then the rest of the world, or at least the internet, will be chanting at you via memes to “eat, sleep, gym, repeat”. Feeling inspired?
It’s no wonder many of us turn to exercise to deliberately switch off. We use our exercise time as our regular ‘me time’, giving ourselves time and space to think, to explore all the thoughts running through our minds, mull over difficult decisions… or the complete opposite. Hitting the tarmac or the treadmill is a great way for many to switch off entirely. Sometimes, we just need to turn off all the screens, escape the noise and regain some space!
What if you didn’t switch off? But rather used your exercise time as a chance to engage both your body and mind, and reconnect the two? The mind is arguably our most powerful muscle, and it needs training like any other muscle, too. Studies have shown that exercise - resistance training in particular – can improve your brain power. We know that exercise sparks neurogenesis, the creation of new brain cells, but more recently it has been discovered that exercise actually helps to strengthen the old brain cells, too. Put down your Sudoku puzzle: real brain training is done in the gym!
Since most of us have never considered going to the gym to strengthen our minds (hands up, who’s here to look good..?) it’s an entirely new concept that might take some getting used to. In the same way that someone new to exercise wouldn’t expect to walk into the weights room and deadlift 100kg with no prior lifting training, we can’t expect to go straight from distracted gym zombies to laser-focused mindfulness overnight. It’ll take some practice. A really simple way to start exploring mindfulness and exercise together is with yoga. Many avid exercisers, big lifters and even the England rugby team know the benefits of yoga for nourishing the body and aiding their primary sport. But improved mindfulness is often the more overlooked attribute of a regular yogi. So pick up a local yoga class, or follow some YouTube videos at home to begin your mindfulness practice. If mindfulness can be defined as the awareness of what you are experiencing while you are experiencing it, then the deliberate, coordinated movements and poses of yoga is the ideal playground for some mindful fun.
Yoga and meditation go hand in hand, so once you’ve gotten to grips with a downward-facing-dog meditation will be (an imaginary) walk in the park. Meditation is definitely having a moment – perhaps it’s the increase in screens around us and the speed at which modern life moves that is making so many of us search for our inner peace? But the technology in our pocket can actually help us reach a place of Zen with 24/7 access to fab little guided meditation apps like Headspace. 10 minutes meditation coupled with some yoga each morning and you’ll be well on your way to a really fulfilling daily mindfulness practice. You can then start to take that mindfulness off the yoga mat and into the everyday, developing that full awareness of what you are experiencing as you experience it – even while cooking dinner or mixing up your Whey Ahead Organic Protein shake!
Now that you are getting to grips with all this mindfulness stuff, you may have noticed that your ability to cope with stress has vastly improved. Your pace of life is somewhat more chilled and that thing at work that’s been previously occupying all your thinking space just isn’t anymore. That, my friend, is daily mindfulness practice in action and is the perfect foundation from which to evolve from gym-zombie to brain trainer. So back to the gym: how do you bring this mindfulness to your workouts? If mindfulness is the awareness of what you are experiencing while you are experiencing it, then it’s no different in the gym either. Whatever your workout, be it running, rowing, squatting or planking, ask yourself the following questions to really engage that brain muscle: What am I experiencing? More specifically, how am I feeling? What has happened to my breathing? Which muscles are working? Which muscles are working hardest? When you start answering these questions you’ll begin an inner dialogue between mind and body that will bring about true awareness of your experience. You can guide your mind over specific body parts such as a working muscle and focus on really noticing the detail of the movement such as the changing angles of the joint and the sensation of each contraction. How’s that for counting reps!
This kind of mindfulness will take your workouts to a whole new level with incredible advantages. You’ll feel things you haven’t felt before, you’ll start to see your muscles differently and begin to be in tune with your body like never before. Thanks to this mind-body connection in the gym, you’ll naturally improve your performance, too. You’ll be able to better engage a working muscle and increase the effectiveness of each rep and thus further strengthening both your body and your mind with each workout. With improved focus and awareness, you are much less prone to accident and injury since every movement will be controlled and deliberate. The benefits to introducing mindfulness to your workouts are endless, so you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
And who knows, with all this brain training, you may just end up a bit more cleverer.