Eating and exercising mindfully for optimum function
Mindfulness. It’s the ongoing buzz word that has been around for a few years now. According to Mindful.org, Mindfulness is; “The basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” In a world where our brains are constantly overstimulated by media and a rushing pace of life, Mindfulness helps us to switch off auto-pilot mode, be aware of our surroundings and actions and gain more control of our reactions. From increased mental wellbeing to healthier relationships, the benefits of mindfulness are numerous and these same principles can be applied to eating and exercise for a healthier relationship with food and your body.
The practice of eating mindfully means learning to listen to our bodies, bringing awareness to physical cues and cravings when eating. Some key principles of mindful eating are:
- Eating slowly and stopping when your body says it’s full – sounds obvious enough but I know I struggle with this one myself. My default eating habits look more like a hot dog eating competition, shovelling my food down my throat at lightning speed, with a maximum of three chews if I’m lucky. No matter how much I eat I never seem to get the signal I’m full until about 30 minutes later where I often realise my eyes were bigger than my belly. Slowing the eating process means the body has the chance to communicate with the mind when it is full and ensure we eat the right amount. If you also struggle to eat your food at a digestible pace try setting your fork down between bites or chewing each bite 25 times or more before starting on the next mouthful.
- Identifying your body’s personal hunger signals – A lot of us allow our eating habits to be driven by our emotions rather than our body signals. Mindful eating requires us to stop and identify why we are about to reach for food. Are we making the decision based on emotions? eg. Boredom, loneliness, sadness or are we making decisions because our body is telling us it is in the need for food? eg. Stomach growling, feeling lightheaded or low in energy. Learning to listen for the body’s hunger signals is a highly beneficial habit to develop both for your waistline and overall wellness.
- Developing healthy eating environments – Eat at set times and places rather than randomly. Learning to sit down at regular times for meals with shared company means we are less likely to eat mindlessly, ensure we are getting sustained energy throughout the day and build healthy social connections with those we are sharing eating times with.
- Eating for overall health and wellbeing – Being educated and aware of the nutritional content of the food we are eating and choosing foods that will best serve our minds and bodies in running at their optimum.
- Being aware of the effect of food on your feelings and body shape – Taking notice of how we feel after eating certain foods, was it energy giving or energy depleting? If you find your body shape has been growing whilst doing the same amount of exercise think back to what may have changed in your food intake recently. Take note of body changes and what your diet has comprised of and this will help you to make nourishing choices going forward.
- Appreciating each meal and where it came from – Taking a moment to contemplate where the food came from and being thankful for those involved in the process from the origins to the meal preparation is a great way to practice gratitude and become more aware of making choices that will contribute to the sustainability of our planet and resources.
Just as eating mindfully moves the body towards optimum function through nourishing food choices, exercising mindfully means choosing and completing exercise in a way that also promotes optimum function.
Being mindful in exercise consists of tuning into how your body feels – pre, during and post exercise and making choices in line with these body signals.
Pre exercise – Choosing how intensely you will exercise based on how your body is feeling at that particular point in time. If you had a big training session on the weekend and the body is feeling heavy and exhausted come Monday, it is ok to switch out your regular Monday morning strength class for a light walk (or extra sleep!) and choose recovery promoting sessions such as Pilates or Yoga until the body is feeling back up to speed. Alternatively, come along to class, notify your trainer as to how you are feeling and give yourself permission to take things down a notch.
Strict training schedules and set routines can be highly beneficial but there should always be room for flexibility and it is important to listen to your body first and foremost. For the ladies, when it’s your time of month you are not expected to train at the same intensity as other times (unless you feel great doing it). Over this time your ability to activate your inner core can be inhibited which means you may be more vulnerable to injury if lifting weights that are too heavy. The key here is simply listening to your body cues and allowing these to override even the most well-intentioned exercise schedule when required.
During exercise – If any of you have been in one of my Pilates or strength classes for more than five minutes you’ll know how much I love reminding you to “Imagine you have a credit card between your butt cheeks and squeeze it” during most lower body exercises. The reason why we constantly harp on about engaging your glutes/core/tummy/shoulder blades or question you about what you are feeling during an exercise and where you are feeling it is because you can do the same exercise mindfully or non-mindfully with very different results. By simply being aware of what you are feeling and what you should be feeling during an exercise you can enhance muscle balance, ensure you are working the muscles you actually want to work and decrease the risk of injury. If something doesn’t feel right – tell your trainer. If you’re not sure what you are supposed to be feeling on a particular exercise – ask your trainer! You may do 100’s of squats wanting to work those coveted glute muscles but have you ever stopped to think if you actually feel them working when you are squatting? Many of us have inhibited muscles due to old injuries or muscle imbalance and some require more focused activation than others. So if you are unsure if you are getting the most out of your muscles when completing certain exercises please discuss this with a trainer.
Another part of being mindful during exercise is being aware of your goals and the purpose of your workouts. Due to the competitive nature in some of us, functional fitness classes can often turn into a race, which is great for pushing each other during the workouts that are meant to be performed at a higher intensity but not at the expense of technique. If your goal is to build more lean muscle you want to be working your muscles through a full range of movement which means deep squats, lunges, press-ups etc. so while you may find yourself switching to race mode during functional class, stop and think, “Am I actually getting the most out of these movements right now?” Half range push-ups or squats won’t harm you if you just want a good cardio-blast but if your goals are muscle building and toning then it would be more beneficial to slow down and get that perfect form nailed first.
Post-exercise – Similar to pre-exercise, being mindful post-exercise means taking note of how you feel after a workout. A few hours later (after a good post-workout meal) do you feel energized or shattered? Of course, for those athletes training at an elite level it may be expected to feel shattered after a big training session or competition but in general, for the purposes of us ‘everyday exercisers’ your workouts should leave you with more, not less energy than if you didn’t work out. If you have the same niggle coming back each time after doing a certain exercise, don’t brush it off. This could be as simple as noticing you have a sore lower back after doing some abdominal exercises which is due to not engaging your core correctly. Be aware of these niggles and discuss with a trainer as it probably just requires a quick tweak of your form or look at your movement pattern to figure out what is out of order.
Stop, think and be mindful. It could be the difference between results coming sooner rather than later.