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Mindful movement balances body and mind

By Lisa Ziegel

It is well publicized that exercise and meditation are both good for a balanced body and mind. Each can alleviate the effects of stress and increase self-esteem and feelings of well-being. However, each takes time and commitment for a person to fully experience their positive effects. If it is hard enough just to fit in 20 minutes of exercise in each day, how much harder would it be to fit in another 20 minutes of meditation? Based on the still too-low percentage of people getting enough physical activity, it seems pretty hard. However, by incorporating some of the elements of meditation into your exercise routine, you can reap many of its benefits and still get the physical activity that is so needed for optimal health.

Sports psychologists have long worked with athletes to teach them "mindfulness" and how to channel mental focus into physical energy. Techniques such as visualization, specific breathing methods, and utilizing the concept of "flow" can improve athletic performance. For the average non-athletic exerciser, these same techniques can also be useful in enhancing the benefits of exercise, aid in injury prevention, help with stress management, and most important, increase enjoyment of activity!


A good example of combining all of these is the popular "ChiRunning®" technique. In this style of running that came into prominence with the 2004-published book "Chi Running," written by ultra-marathoner Danny Dreyer, runners are encouraged to adopt a style of running using a more relaxed, mindful approach achieved through posture and alignment and recruiting less effort from the muscles, instead utilizing natural alignment to propel one's body forward. Dreyer developed this concept from practicing the ancient mind-body art, Qigong, and applied it to his passion for running. The elements he found that most related to running were those of movement and breathing. In his view, the body should be aligned at all times to allow proper breathing and use of energy, so instead of striding forward and either landing on the heel or the forefoot, one should keep his or her stride short, focus on a natural forward lean from the hip and ankle joints to use natural momentum to propel forward, and land on the mid-foot to absorb ground forces and redistribute energy back to the body. In other words, the "flow" of energy would be balanced, which is what "Qi" (or "Chi") is all about. Dreyer contends that this method is both physically and mentally less stressful and can allow the participant to gain more pleasure from the activity as well as run less risk of becoming injured. A term used by ChiRunning® enthusiasts is "moving meditation." Since the goal is to make this a natural way of movement, the desired end result would be a calming of the mind, much like static meditation. Actually, this technique can be applied to just about any activity besides running, including walking and resistance training. Competitive athletes in a variety of sports have used it.

Sports Psychology

The discipline of Sports Psychology was formed as a legitimate science in the 1920s and has since been used extensively to help athletes as well as non-competitive exercisers achieve physical goals. Commonly employed mind/body methods include the use of visualization, self-talk, and pre-activity routines. An example of using visualization would be practicing the event or activity in your mind while in a relaxed state; seeing, hearing, feeling - - using all the senses as if you are actually doing it and achieving the desired result in order to improve performance in real-time. There has been the suggestion of modest success with visualization in formal studies published so far, and more work needs to be done, but practicing this can certainly do no harm, and empirical evidence points to it being a successful intervention for many trainers and coaches in helping their clients.

Self-talk is another way to help keep the focus on performance aspects to avoid succumbing to self-defeating negativity. Telling oneself "I am strong" versus focusing on "my legs are tired" has actually been found to help re-program neural connections.1 This works verbally, mentally, or visually (writing things down). A good example taught by ACSM Health Fitness Instructor Ilene Bergelson demonstrates how you can slow your heart rate quicker after high-intensity exercise by thinking (along with your actual heart rate, by hearing the beats in your head), then vocalizing or using your hand to tap the slower beat that you want your heart to match, as an effective tool in recovery, enabling further high-intensity work to improve endurance and speed.

Pre-activity routines should include, of course, a physical warm-up but also to help focus on the task at hand, reaching a version of a meditative state, which can be achieved by breathing, practicing specific movements (you can borrow from Tai Chi or Yoga) and utilizing visualization and self-talk. Many athletes can be seen pre-game doing all of these, each in their own way. Whatever works for an individual is all that matters. The goal is to reduce harmful stress and "over arousal," which comes from nervous adrenaline and can be detrimental in the long run. The non-athlete can also find his or her own rituals to prepare for activity; it's much better than rushing in from your office or out of your car and jumping right in…and many group exercise instructors incorporate this into the class routine.

Once you learn how to let go of the mental barriers that hold you back from enjoying exercise, you can learn to enjoy it and appreciate the meditative aspects of movement, from running to resistance training. You will not only benefit in physical performance and outcomes of activity, you will achieve the same positive effects you can gain from meditation, without spending extra time!

1Sports Medicine: Volume 37, Number 12, 2007 , pp. 1029-1044(16)