Break free from exercising on autopilot

Break free from exercising on autopilot

Most of us exercise on autopilot, without paying full attention to what we're doing. But there is much to be gained from a more mindful approach to exercise, not least a greater enjoyment of the experience and a better workout.

Do you exercise on autopilot? Consider the questions below:

  • Is your workout something you need to get through before you feel you can move on to more enjoyable things?
  • Do you listen to music or watch television while you're exercising?
  • Does the repetitive nature of your exercise programme lull you into a dream-like state?
  • Do you find that you have little recollection of your exercise session?
  • Is exercise a means to an end, rather than a pleasure in itself?
  • Are you prone to injuring yourself when you exercise because you're not really paying attention to your body?

If you're answering “yes” to a lot of these questions, chances are you're exercising on autopilot. Don't beat yourself up about it – must of us do, or have done at some point. It's all too easy to see exercise as a chore that we need to get out of the way as quickly as possible, distracting ourselves as we do so. Exercising like this is merely an extension of the way many of us live much of our lives, seldom truly engaged in the present moment but always aware of our to-do lists.

The opposite of this autopilot is mindfulness, sometimes referred to as living life with full attention. Being mindful involves paying attention to the present moment of experience in a gentle, non-judgmental way. It's all about letting your experience be your experience – even if it isn't exactly what you would have chosen at that particular moment – and owning the present moment. So when you're exercising mindfully, you're just exercising. You're aware of how your body is moving and what that feels like.

Why exercise with full attention?

Perhaps the idea of exercising mindfully sounds a bit odd. Particularly if you're really pushing yourself, or if you're unfit and finding it all a bit of a struggle. Why would you want to engage with your present experience if your present experience involves pain, sweat and breathlessness?! Surely a bit of distraction is exactly what is needed!

Not so. There are two main benefits to exercising mindfully:

  • It's a richer experience. People are often surprised at just how much there is to experience when they actually pay attention to what they're doing. That includes all of the sensory input that's coming into your body, but also an awareness of how you're moving. It's hard not to feel at least some appreciation when you stop to consider just how amazing it is that we can walk and run and cycle.
  • You get a better workout. You're likely to perform moves more accurately, put in more effort, and avoid injury if you're really paying attention to what you are doing.

There is also a subtler benefit to exercising mindfully, and that benefit is connected to the non-judgmental nature of mindfulness. The bit where you let your experience be your experience without trying to change it in any way. If you can learn to do that, then a racing heart is just a racing heart. Not a sign that you're unfit, that you'll never be able to stick at this regime, or that you're not making the progress you want to make. Aching muscles are just aching muscles. Not testimony to your flabbiness or weakness. In other words, you're not compounding unpleasant experiences by attaching all sorts of unhelpful thoughts to them.

How do I exercise with full attention?

If all of this sounds appealing and you'd like to give it a go, there are various possibilities open to you.

  •  You could take up a form of exercise that has mindfulness built into it. Yoga, T'ai Chi and Pilates are particularly good, as paying attention to your body is an integral feature of these forms of exercise. Of course it's up to you to bring your mind back to your body as it wanders (which it invariably will, because that is what minds do).
  • You could reduce distractions when you exercise. Switch off the television or your MP3 player and pay attention to what you're doing.
  • You could build a simple mindfulness reminder into your exercise routine. A single word often works well, such as “reconnect” or “notice.” That's all you're doing – reconnecting to and noticing your experience. Try to bring a quality of curiosity to this, as though you were doing it for the first time.
  •  You could use your breath as an anchor to your experience. Just notice your breathing. It sounds simple, but try doing it for five minutes and you'll quickly realise how difficult a task it is. If you can regularly bring your attention back to your breath when you exercise, your experience will be more mindful.
  • Finally, if the whole idea of mindfulness interests you, there are mindfulness courses all over the country now, plenty of books available on the subject, and an enormous collection of formal meditation practices that help you to cultivate mindfulness in day-to-day life.

Life is too short and too precious for us to let it whizz past while we're on autopilot.” begin experience!


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