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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 training programs.
Does it really help, though? Research seems to indicate that it does. In one landmark Cleveland Clinic study, when test subjects used visualization techniques — imagining themselves performing exercises — they experienced physical strength gains of up to 53 percent. And a review of 47 trials published in JAMA Internal Medicine confirmed that meditation can help alleviate anxiety, depression and physical pain. Meditation has been found to reduce levels of cortisol, allowing you to recover as quickly as possible, and thus to train more often and more effectively. Here’s how to reap the rewards of meditation in your training.
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One popular and widely studied meditation technique is “mindfulness,” in which your mind and body “hang out” together in the present and quiet down negative thoughts. To begin, spend 10 minutes a day sitting in a quiet, comfortable place without distractions, closing your eyes and paying attention to your breath (try counting each inhalation and exhalation, or notice the rise and fall of your chest) and how your body feels (try scanning from the top of your head to the tips of your toes). When your thoughts drift, gently redirect your attention back into the present moment, to your breath and any physical sensations, smells or sounds.
Consistency is key, so try to meditate in the same place and at the same time every day, and focus on quality over quantity. If obstacles pop up, don’t let that derail your practice. Simply get back to it again the next day.
Find That Focal Point
Once you’ve practiced meditating a few times, you’ll likely discover that you can bring greater focus to your exercise routine. If you’re present in the moment, you can concentrate on your workouts and avoid running on automatic pilot, resulting in better, safer training.
If you find your thoughts drifting elsewhere — to unpaid bills, holiday plans 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 how your body feels. Visualize how much more sculpted your muscles are becoming and how much closer you are to your fat-loss goals.
The same sort of focus can dramatically improve your eating habits. Again, consider how often your mind is somewhere else while you’re scarfing down a meal, not even realizing what you’re eating. With a trained mind, you’ll eat more consciously. As you prepare and eat meals, pay attention to smells, tastes and the sustenance they offer your body. Chances are you’ll make better food choices and feel satisfied and healthier, too.
Knock Down Walls
When your mind is strong, you can break through barriers that block your goals. Mindfulness training teaches you that your excuses are just thoughts in your head that needn’t stop you. Essentially, while an untrained mind’s default is to put up barriers, meditation teaches the brain to recognize these thoughts as background noise and then refocus on what needs to be done.
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 I’m bored, consider whether these thoughts are simply self-defeating stories. Your meditation practice will likely strengthen your belief in yourself and your ability to continue. And it will help you listen to your body so you can clearly determine whether you need to stop or whether you really can do a few more reps or run a few more minutes.
Reap the Rewards
For your fat-loss plan to succeed, you need a real understanding of your goal. Although you probably have a general view of why you’re dieting and working out — whether it’s to change the way your body looks or feel more energized — the specifics may not be as clear as they could be. Meditation helps you zero in on those details.
Take a few moments to ask yourself what you think the results of exercising your body and mind will be, how much you value those results, how you feel about your exercises (confident, embarrassed, frightened, determined) or how much control you have over your ability to make it happen. Instead of thinking your way to the “right” answer, sit for a few moments and allow your mind to calm down and become uncluttered. You may very well find that’s enough to give you clarity.
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 is practically guaranteed.