This article was first published in The Hindu on March 31, 2013.
All workouts involve the mind-body connection, says DR. SHEELA NAMBIAR.
The new buzzword in the fitness industry is ‘Mind-Body’ exercise. This primarily refers to Yoga, Pilates and T’ai Chi where the Mind-Body connection is unmistakably evident. The instructions are directed to the breath and a very obvious connection is made between the breath and the movement. When taught properly, it can produce several health benefits like relief from and management of stress besides a certain inward thinking, body awareness and mindfulness.
This false differentiation, however, makes it appear as if any other form of fitness (running, aerobic dance, strength training) somehow does not involve the mind!
It is my belief, however, that every single exercise modality needs to be a mind-body activity. It is well known that applying the focus of concentration to anything one does makes the endeavour that much more rewarding.
A major part of fitness is about the mind. Determination, perseverance, understanding and dedication… these are qualities without which one cannot hope to persist with a fitness routine day after day. It may seem as if physical fitness is just that; a “physical” enterprise. It is not really completely physical. There may have been times when the body is reluctant to get on the treadmill or pick up the weights or go through a yoga routine. It is one’s mind that is responsible for persisting with it.
Take strength training, for instance. One cannot have an animated conversation with a buddy in the gym while working with weights. There has to be total focus on the weight being used, the rhythm and pattern of breathing, the muscles being worked, the accessory muscles being worked, the correct ‘form’ of the exercise and so on. How can it not be a mind-body exercise then? If one is not mindful while training with weights, the chances of injury are very high.
Breathing is the essence of life, obviously, but I often see the gym rat going blue in the face as he/she tries to force a movement while simultaneously holding his/her breath. Even experienced exercisers and trainers seem to need constant reminders about their breathing pattern while training with weights. So, the next time, instead of keeping an eye on your neighbour to see if he is watching you perform a seemingly Herculean dead lift, focus on your own breath instead; on which muscles are working to lift the weight; on keeping your core stable, spine aligned and your body weight balanced evenly. Continuing through those last few reps when your muscles are begging you to stop is possible only with the right mental attitude. Weight training can be as much a Zen-like activity as a breathing-and-relaxation routine.
Although some people enjoy their cardio, others find it extremely dreary or difficult. Here is a situation where one can attempt to trick one’s mind into enjoying it. If you cannot go for a run or use the cross trainer, try one of the new cardio classes with music, some entertainment, and other exercisers that add to the thrill making one forget (to some extent at least) the actual work done. Some people need that distraction while others are able to go through their daily workout without external motivation. These are just personality types. Some people are self-motivated while others are not. Identify your personality type and figure out what works best for you, the prime objective being to help you stay with your exercise routine.
The mind is called upon to focus, learn and commit to memory during a complicated aerobic/step/zumba/kick-boxing class with choreography and music. Your mind is working. There is no question about it. There are students who will swear they have two left feet. They are tone deaf and have no clue about music. Somehow, with practice, their body learns to adapt to a new kind of movement. It learns to listen to and understand rhythm. Even if you don’t necessarily participate in an exercise activity that requires your memory to be actively involved, the mere increase in oxygenation to the brain is one of the most important stimuli for improvement in brain function.
Researchers (Kramer, Erickson and Colcombe, 2006, and Hillman and Van Prag 2008) found that regular exercise creates new pathways, new cells (neurogenesis) and improved blood flow (vascularity) in the brain thereby improving cognition, working memory and multi-tasking. These are the very functions that normally decline with age. Regular exercise could, therefore, prevent this decline, paving the way for a better quality of life.
It works both ways. The mind is used to exercise, which in turn improves brain function. All fitness activities have a mind-body connection. This is more palpable and manifests clearly when one focuses on the activity at hand. When one is open to learning and understanding. When one is conscious and mindful.