Body and brains

Being mindful about the way you move helps maximize each workout minute.

Every time you exercise, you have the opportunity to have a mediocre workout, a good workout or a life-changing one — since, surprisingly, experts say the key to tapping your body’s true potential is all in the mind. Increasingly, science shows that the more engaged you are mentally during exercise, the greater the body, brain and all-over health payoffs. Researchers have found that "tuning in" to a workout improves everything from enhanced muscle strength to neuroplasticity, or actually growing new brain cells.

Not convinced? Consider this analogy: When you’re doing a task, say locking your car or pouring coffee, and you’re thinking about something else, you can slip up (the key gets stuck, you spill your drink). Because you’re not solely focused on one thing, you simply won’t do it as well. The same is true during exercise: your body may be going through the movements (the steps, the cadence, the reps), but if you’re not mentally connected to your body and what it’s doing, it simply won’t respond as well. Period.

Take a study at Harvard University, for example. Eighty-four hotels maids were broken into two groups: one group was told their daily routine of heavy cleaning counted as considerable exercise, the other was given no new information about the health benefits of the job. After a month of observation, the housekeepers who were "in the know" experienced a significant decrease in weight, waist-to-hip ratio and blood pressure without changing their daily routines at all, while the women left in the dark experienced no such changes. Why? The study's head researcher credits pure mindfulness and the power of engagement.

More findings at Bishop's University point to the potential of a focused mind. Thirty male student rugby, football and basketball players were randomly put in three groups: one group was asked to train their hip flexors using strength training, another using mental imagery and the third to do neither (the control group). Surprisingly, the group that mentally visualized training exhibited nearly as much strength gain as the group that lifted weights, and both groups saw similar decreases in heart rate and systolic blood pressure.

"Even if you only have 60 minutes or less to work out, you want that time to be the most purposeful it can be," says Carol Espel, MS, senior national director of group fitness at Equinox. "It’s about committing to more than just showing up, it’s about finally getting better body results, improving your brain function and maximizing workout benefits — whether that's overall fitness, strength, flexibility or weight loss."

Mindful movement, kinesthetic awareness, focused exercise — there are a number of names to describe a purposeful workout, one that goes beyond read-your-magazine-while-floating-Zombie-like on the elliptical. Here, four ways to make your workout more mindful and get the most benefits from your limited time:

Talk yourself up
When you’re challenging yourself — for example, doing an additional 5 more reps on the assisted pull-up machine — give yourself an internal pep talk that’s specific to your goal. A 2005 study from New Zealand found that weightlifters who psyched themselves up increased their bench-pressing strength by nearly 12 percent compared to those who were mentally distracted.

Listen to the pros
Whether you’re working out with a trainer or in an instructor-led class, really focus on the verbal cues and directions. Plenty of research has found that strength, power and speed improve when an exerciser is responding to the verbal cues and feedback of someone who is overseeing his/her workout.

Push yourself to the limit
The very act of going all-out — drawing on every last bit of strength in your being — forces you to think of nothing else but what you’re doing. Grocery lists, tomorrow’s meeting, last night’s date all fall to the wayside while you focus on making it through the next minute. "When you’re working so incredibly hard at something, you don’t have the capacity to think about anything else," explains Erika Shannon, an Equinox group fitness instructor in New York City who teaches Deep EXtreme — the newest class in the "conscious movement" category, which the clubs introduced in 2008.

Mix it up
One of the easiest ways to keep your mind on your workout is to take on new moves, skills or choreography. You have to be mentally engaged to pick up new movement, whether it’s trying out a new cardio class or adding a new plane of movement to your usual squats routine. "You’re even going to burn more calories learning something new, because your muscles don’t know what to expect," says Espel. And once you master something, you feel empowered.

Want more on mindfulness? Mindsightauthor Daniel Siegel, MD, dives deeper.