Study after study has proven how powerfully exercise can impact your psychological wellbeing, doing everything from lowering depression to increasing self-confidence. The reverse is also true: The mindset you bring into the gym can greatly affect your experience. “Mood drives our behaviors, and that can ripple through into performance in workouts,” says Deanna Minich, Ph.D., Seattle-based author of The Rainbow Diet and member of the Equinox Health Advisory Board.
When researchers at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, interviewed athletes, they found that strong emotions, either positive or negative, were linked to better athletic performance. For example, you may sprint a PR after getting promoted—or after a unusually stressful meeting or argument with your partner.
If you’re sad or emotional coming into a workout, you could expect a release in the form of tears. Yoga, in particular, can have this effect, according to Nadia Zaki, a yoga instructor at Equinox in New York City. “If you lay down on a ball or stretch out and do a backbend, you know how open you feel because you are really stretching out your lungs and your heart,” she says. “A lot of people start crying afterward.” As the blood travels to all these tight areas and the muscles get more oxygen, you’re able to release more emotion, according to Zaki.
To harness your current mental state to your advantage, Minich says that it’s helpful to determine which mindsets motivate you. “Emotions can be used as messengers for peak performance. If anger gets you going, then it’s good to know that about yourself to enable you to find ways to leverage it to its fullest.” You can add a section to your workout log (digital or paper) to record how you feel emotionally at the start and end of the session. After a few weeks of tracking, go back to see if there are any patterns. Think: If you’re feeling hot-headed, you might want to get in a HIIT session where you can channel some of that rage into movement. If you’re emotionally closed off and want to work through it, book a yoga class or do some yoga backbends and heart-openers on your own.
If you can’t be as flexible with your fitness routine, or need to get your head right before a race, you can try a breathing exercise to center yourself to be ready for any physical pursuit. “I always emphasize breath because it keeps the focus on your body. You can use your breath to warm up, to focus energy, or to calm down,” Zaki says. Try breathing in deeply, through your nose and allow your chest to fill up like a balloon. Exhale slowly and contract your belly as you breathe out. Pay attention to each inhale and exhale as you reset your mindset to mentally prepare to tackle the goal in front of you. Repeat for two minutes—then get ready to accomplish whatever you have in store.