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In the world of health and wellness, there’s always a new buzzword going around. From antioxidants and superfoods to muscle confusion and Tabata workouts, we’re always hearing about the next big thing! that will make us just a little bit healthier. The latest one? Mindfulness. The idea is focus on the task at hand, to stay completely in the moment, and pay close attention to how you’re feeling while you do it. Practicing mindfulness is said to improve your mental and physical health and help you make better choices. It sounds very promising, but I wondered if just concentrating on getting healthier was a little too good to be true, and if it was really even possible in my loud and hectic life. So I decided to try an experiment—a week of living mindfully, focusing on how I eat, work out, and stretch. It was a little lonely at times, sometimes really boring, but also really interesting by the end of the week. Now I’m back, ready to take a deep breath and share my results:
The goal: To focus on what you eat and why you’re eating it, as in whether it’s to satisfy physical hunger or an emotional need, and to reestablish your relationship with food. It’s encouraged to chew your food slowly and completely, preferably in silence for maximum concentration.
The reality: I have two dogs and a toddler, so eating in silence was completely out of the question, but I did make sure the TV was off and my phone was out of reach. I immediately noticed how my instinct was to blow through my food to get to the next item on my to-do list, and it took some serious willpower to pace my meals into 15-20 minute sessions. It took a few attempts before I could really slow down, but I found that concentrating on putting my fork down after every bite helped, as did trying to pay attention to individual flavors and textures (stupid as I felt sometimes having a conversation with myself about how bright the lemon tasted or how crunchy the toast was). Overall, I definitely enjoyed my food more and appreciated the effort I put into cooking it more than I usually do, and I also became more in tune with how certain foods fueled my workouts and recovery. In the end, I’m not sure it’s a habit I can keep up with on a regular basis but I do plan to eat mindfully at least a few times a week to keep reaping these benefits.
The goal: To focus on the physical sensations of your workout and think about how it makes you feel. Ideally you should exercise without music or any electronics to allow you to concentrate only on your workout and become more in tune with your body.
The reality: This was a tough one. I have a really hard time running for longer than ten minutes without music, and my cross-training of choice usually involves following a workout DVD on my TV in my living room. To be completely honest, my first run totally sucked—I got bored and unmotivated and headed home early. The next day I tried again and set out to run just a mile around my neighborhood. I forced myself to check out the landscaping at each house I passed to clear my head and give myself something to focus on, and then I switched gears and spent the last few minutes paying attention to how my legs felt as I ran and how my breathing changed when I went faster or hit a hill. By the end of the week the back-to-basics method did change the way I felt about running; it made me feel prouder about getting through tough runs because I paid so much attention to how hard my body was working, I allowed myself to slow down when something hurt instead of just pushing through, and I was able to clear my head of the usual stressful to-do list that runs through it and just focus on my breathing and footsteps. I still prefer to run with music but like the idea of setting aside one run every weekend to go tunes-free and reboot my mindset. As for the cross-training? I did try and take it outside and work through some lunges and squats in the great outdoors, but I don’t think Mother Nature is the trainer for me. I just didn’t have the motivation to make myself work very hard and would rather have someone guiding me through the exercises. Major kudos to anyone who works out in silence, but for now I think the occasional yoga class is the only way I’ll be able to get my cross-training Zen on.
The goal: To take the time to truly stretch each muscle group after a workout with the intent of focusing on which parts of your body worked the hardest and which may need a break.
The reality: This was some mindfulness I could get behind. Like most people, I can get pretty lazy when it comes to stretching; I just want to get it over with and get to the shower already. But making myself sit on the floor after a run and slowly stretch out my body made me feel so good. I immediately noticed which muscles were tighter and felt such a release when I tried multiple stretches. I felt so much more relaxed when I was finished and even better, I couldn’t believe how much less sore I felt the next day. It was also truly enjoyable to just be still after being so amped up after a workout; not to sound all new age-y but I definitely felt centered and ready to move on with my day afterwards. If you want to try practicing mindfulness but aren’t sure you’re up for it, I definitely recommend starting with stretching because it’s very manageable and completely satisfying.