Mind Over Muscle

Meditation has long been touted for a variety of health-boosting benefits, bit it also can be the key to a leaner, stronger, fitter physique.

Alexa Joy Sherman | August 10, 2015

It’s often been said that where the mind goes, the body follows. So it’s no surprise that meditation has become an increasingly popular, if not essential, part of countless fitness and competitive athletic programs. Former NBA coach Phil Jackson, aka the “Zen Master,” credits meditation with helping him win more championships than any coach in the history of professional sports. Olympic gold medal-winning volleyball players Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh reportedly practice meditation to gain a competitive edge.

“Training the mind is now considered every bit as important as training the body,” says Andy Puddicombe, a former Buddhist monk and founder of the popular meditation app Headspace. “It’s continually proven that a strong mind makes it easier to achieve our goals and even improve our fitness levels.”

In one landmark Cleveland Clinic study, when test subjects used visualization techniques — essentially imagining themselves performing exercises — they experienced physical strength gains of up to 53 percent. And a new review of 47 trials published in JAMA Internal Medicine confirmed that meditation can help alleviate anxiety, depression and physical pain. “Meditation has been found time and again to reduce levels of cortisol — and if we can find a way to bring the body to a place of homeostasis where it’s recovering as quickly as possible, then that allows us to train more often, more effectively and harder when we do,” Puddicombe says.

Researchers have even found that the brain undergoes physiological changes that contribute to these, and countless other, health benefits. “In the same way our muscles get thicker and stronger when we train them in the gym, the part of the brain associated with focus, happiness and feelings of well-being gets thicker and stronger when we train the mind through meditation,” Puddicombe says. Here’s how to reap the rewards of meditation in your own training.

Get Started

While there are many different kinds of meditation, one of the most popular and widely studied in the Western world is “mindfulness” or mindfulness-based stress reduction, a practice defined as “the nonjudgmental awareness of experiences in the present moment.” Essentially, it’s about getting your mind and body to hang out together in the here and now and to quiet down negative thoughts, especially about the past or future. To begin, simply spend 10 minutes a day sitting in a quiet, comfortable place without distractions, closing your eyes and paying close attention to your breath (try counting each inhalation and exhalation, or notice the rise and fall of your chest or belly) and how your body feels (try scanning from the top of your head to the tips of your toes). When your thoughts drift somewhere else (and they probably will), gently redirect your attention back into the present moment, to your breath and any physical sensations, smells or sounds.

For those who find this a bit challenging at first, a guided meditation app such as Headspace can be quite helpful. “It’s a bit like learning to drive a car, and it’s nice to have someone in the seat next to you who has done it a lot and who can direct you,” Puddicombe says. “When you get more confident, then you can move on and do it on your own.”

As with any form of training, consistency is key, so try to meditate in the same place and at the same time every day, and focus on quality over quantity. “Ten minutes really is enough to start,” Puddicombe says. If obstacles pop up and you’re not able to meditate at the same time or place (or at all), don’t let that derail your practice. “Things don’t always go according to plan, so when you miss a session or two, just accept it and get going again the very next day.”

Find Your Focus

Once you’ve practiced meditating a few times, you’ll likely discover opportunities to bring certain skills you’re acquiring to your workouts. Chief among them: laser-like focus. “Mindfulness promotes full immersion in your routine,” says Zella Moore, Psy.D., associate professor of psychology at Manhattan College in Riverdale, New York, and co-author of The Psychology of Enhancing Human Performance. “Being present in the moment allows you to focus on your workouts in a slow and careful manner, which will promote better results and safer exercise. It also helps you avoid ‘automatic pilot’ exercise, which can be dangerous and is less likely to achieve the desired results.”

If you find your thoughts drifting elsewhere — to unpaid bills, the vacation you’re planning, a looming work deadline or a recent argument — simply guide your mind back into the moment, focusing your energy and effort on your workout. Take your time and pay attention to how your muscles are working and what your body feels like. Visualize how much stronger you’re becoming with each rep and how much faster you’re getting as you run.

The same sort of focus can dramatically improve your eating habits, as well. Again, consider how often your mind is somewhere else while you’re scarfing down a meal, how you may polish it off and not even realize what you’ve eaten. But when you’ve trained your mind through meditation, you’re able to eat more slowly and consciously, Moore says. “This reduces our vulnerability to rapid, automatic and often less healthy eating alternatives and patterns.” As you prepare and eat food, pay attention to how it smells, how it tastes, how it’s giving your body what it needs to function and thrive. Chances are you’ll make the best possible choices and feel satisfied and healthier as a result.

Overcome Obstacles

We all have barriers that get in the way of reaching our goals, both inside and outside the gym: from feeling less than motivated to exercise or giving in to the temptation to eat something we shouldn’t to questioning how much weight we can lift or whether we’re ever going to bust through a frustrating plateau. “But when our mind is strong, fit and healthy, we can stop these obstacles from blocking our goals,” Puddicombe says. “Mindfulness training helps us recognize that our excuses are just thoughts dancing through our head.”

Essentially, while an untrained mind’s default is to put up barriers and leave them up, often derailing us completely, meditation teaches the brain to recognize these thoughts for what they are, namely background noise, and then refocus on what needs to be done. “By overlooking these thoughts, we can stop over-thinking and thus make our plan a success,” Puddicombe says. This works in the context of diet, too. “Meditation helps to minimize the possibility of emotional eating due to things like hunger, stress and other factors,” Moore says.

So the next time your mind says, “I’m starving,” and you reach for the nearest comfort food, take a moment to think before you eat. Similarly, if you’re working out and begin to think, “I can’t do it” or “It hurts,” consider whether these thoughts are accurate or simply self-defeating stories you’re telling yourself. Your meditation practice will likely strengthen both your ability to continue and your belief in yourself. “The enhanced awareness that comes with mindfulness can help us recognize that our thoughts aren’t necessarily realities but are simply mental activities that come and go in all of us,” Moore says.

Of course, you must always listen to your body, and meditation will help you develop a clearer sense of when you truly need to fuel your body in a particular way or to stop exercising. “It’s important that we never push ourselves to the point of injury,” Puddicombe says. “But in the moments where we can physically continue and the mind is saying that we can’t, mindfulness will help you determine whether you can do a couple more reps or run another five minutes. Is your body telling you that you can’t or is it just a thought?”

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

For any fitness plan to succeed, you need a real understanding of your personal goals. While you probably have a general view of why you’re sticking to a strict diet and working out — whether it’s to change the way your body looks or feel stronger, leaner and more energized — the specifics may not be as clear as they could be. Meditation helps you zero in on those details and stay focused on them each and every day. “It really is as simple as wanting to get from Point A to Point B,” Puddicombe says. “If you don’t know where B is, then it’s very unlikely you’re going to get there.”

Take a few moments to think about the specific results you’re seeking and ask yourself these questions: What do you think the results of exercising your body and mind will be? How much do you value these results? How do you feel about doing these exercises (confident, embarrassed, frightened, determined)? How much control do you have over your ability to make it happen?

Instead of thinking your way to the “right” answer, sit for a few moments and see what comes up. “Very often we’ll ask ourselves a question and become analytical and get lost in thought again,” Puddicombe says. “But sometimes if we allow a bit more space around the questioning, we might be surprised by the answers. The fundamental process of meditation is [when] the surface of the mind, which is usually very ruffled with all kinds of thoughts, tends to calm down — and we naturally have more clarity about where we should put our focus and our attention.”

The bottom line: When you know what you need to do in the moment, when you have confidence in your abilities and a clear understanding of where you’re going, success in training and in life is practically guaranteed.

About the Author

Alexa Joy Sherman