Mindfulness for a Fitness Breakthrough!

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the biologist who first coined the term “mindfulness” in the ’70s, defines it as a state of mind: the act of “paying attention on purpose” to the present moment, with a “non-judgmental” attitude. The Atlantic.com; image: mumsdreamsignite.com

After just returning from a physically and mentally challenging, world Dancesport competition, I was reminded again about the beauty of focusing on the now – not 10 minutes ago, not next week, but the current moment. Putting the practice of mindfulness into the physical actions at hand is an absolute must in any sport – competitive or otherwise. From a mental and emotional perspective, being “in the moment” during the experience heightens awareness and appreciation. And how completely rewarding it is when the focus is achieved, distractions fade, and the body reacts as the mind desires!
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In today’s A.D.D. style society, where we multi-task, mentally leap ahead to what’s coming next and get an adrenaline rush from distractions,

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simply being mindful is becoming a lost art. Yet one which (I realized, again) is critical to performance and fulfillment.

The Physical Practice of Being Mindful
Being in the moment does take practice. It’s all too easy to go into auto-pilot with routine tasks. Take a look at our personal fitness efforts…do our minds wander as we step through a work-out, or jog along the same route, or meander from machine to machine at the gym?

Most of us do this to some extent – it can be a stress reliever to just “go work out” and not think. However, not paying attention while working out, or doing chores or some other physical activity can risk unexpected injuries and less effective actions.

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Hence, practice being purposeful. Our bodies react to what the mind envisions. When we can focus on our training time and really zero in on how our bodies are working, what we’re asking our muscles to do, while perfecting form with function, it’s then we can kick it into overdrive (i.e. with competition) or slide into auto-pilot (i.e. simply getting out for a walk) with our bodies ready to perform. The practice of being mindful and paying close attention to how we move will pay off with improved action and less chance for injury.

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How Do We Practice Mindfulness to Improve our Fitness?
First, identify a reason. Why do we work out…To lose weight? Train for a sports activity? Run around with the kids? Feel better overall? Once we identify our true motivator for exercising – and more than simply “because it’s good for me” – it’s easier to become purposeful in our actions. And when we have that goal in front of us, we can truly ‘be in the moment’ and enjoy it!

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Next, try getting out of the normal routine. This is great for mental health, such as spurring our neuroplasticity, which is “the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment.” Medicinenet.com. Incorporating new activities perks us up, helps us learn new patterns and inherently helps us pay more attention to the physical details.

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Add in some “mind-body” work. There’s a reason why Pilates, yoga and Barre classes are so popular. They provide the opportunity for us to focus inward and concentrate on perfecting movement, which only serves to enhance our efforts, actions and performances with any other physical activity.

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image: rbz_fit_city_NFL_Pilates_14_statesman.com

Consider my personal fave, Pilates: “The very structure of the Pilates method requires mental focus, a process that forces your muscles to respond more quickly to training. Rather than performing monotonous and reflexive repetitions, you will carefully execute a limited number of compound movements with an eye toward perfecting every possible detail. By integrating body and mind, you will achieve an effective, efficient and balanced workout.”Pilates Body in Motion, Alycea Ungaro

I love this quote by founder Joseph H. Pilates, in his book Return to Life Through Contrology: “To achieve the highest accomplishments within the scope of our capabilities in all walks of life, we must constantly strive to acquire strong, healthy bodies and develop our minds to the limit of our ability.

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Yes, I’m a Pilates enthusiast and tell people that I “do Pilates” so that I can “do the things I love to do”! And I can attest to the fact that incorporating Pilates techniques results in heightened mind-body awareness. Meaning, the realization of how our bodies move and react in space works wonders for agility and coordination.

Correct movement can be trained to be second nature, so that if we’re not paying attention and take a misstep or get bumped into, our strong core and active muscles can accommodate for the unexpected.

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Pay Attention on Purpose
Let’s help our bodies out and focus in on the how and why we’re exercising. By practicing mindfulness, we’ll move stronger, feel better, improve our balance and overall actions. And Bonus!…We’ll enjoy the here and now!

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Just Dance! Move It – Shake It – Be Fit!

If you haven’t succumbed to the dancing phenomenon – the “Dancing With The Stars”-”America’s Favorite Dance Crew”-”So You Think You Can Dance”-”Dance Moms” (ok, maybe not that one) – media frenzy, the health benefits alone may cause you to reconsider.

What is it about dancing and the human race that go hand in hand?
Yes, that’s a broad generalization, but seriously, I bet when you think of everyone you know, they’ve probably either watched some sort of dance show, been awed by some form of dance, have wanted to learn how, have caught themselves swaying to a favorite song, or fully cutting loose and cutting a rug.
Or, if you’re like me, have done all of the above.

I was heading to the airport on the way to a ballroom dance competition, and my cab driver asked me where I was going. He looked like an ex-Hell’s Angel – a big dude, balding with a goatee, tattoo on his forearm – so when I told him I was on my way to compete in dance, I expected a grunt with an eye roll. Instead he said… “Oh! I’ve always wanted to do that. The waltz is really beautiful. But I’d kinda like to salsa.” (Seriously!)

There’s just something about being caught up in the combination of a good piece of music and a human being physically manifesting the song’s emotion, its story, that’s inspiring and makes us want to get up and move.
That’s because our bodies are meant to move. And we’re made to express our joy, thrill, happiness, pain, sorrow, passion, love! That’s the beauty of being alive.
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Somewhere along the line we go from being a care-free, twirling, kicking kiddo to talking ourselves into ‘So-I-Know-I-Can’t-Dance’ intimidation. Call it culture, getting a bit beat up by life, just not feeling it. Don’t kid yourself – that inner dancer is still in you – and there’s good reason to let him/her come out!

Putting emotion aside – have you wondered about those dancers’ bodies and how they get that way? Lean muscle mass, cardio vascular health, coordination, great posture. It’s what we all should strive for, yes?

Let’s Build Some Muscle
The act of dancing engages EVERYthing. Large muscle groups, the all-important small stabilizers, abs, back, ankles and feet. Your entire body moves in unison – torching calories, building strength and endurance.

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How About Heart Health
The fun part of dancing is that while you’re moving, jumping, swinging and swaying, before you know it you’re out of breath. Your heart pumps, diaphragm expands and contracts, lung capacity increases along with blood flow. You’re not staring at the treadmill’s timer hoping it would speed up so you can be done. Because you’re not counting the minutes, you end up increasing your heart rate for a longer period of time without even realizing it (think fun vs. work).

Finesse Your Eye-Hand-Full-Body Coordination

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Even if you have a little trouble finding the beat, the exercise of focusing your brain on matching movements to music improves your neuro-muscular coordination. That connection of your muscles responding to what you want them to do gets more precise, faster, better. A benefit that ANY physical endeavor, sport, daily activity will realize.

About Your Posture
As your core gets stronger while you’re swiveling those hips, shimmying that ribcage – you’re strengthening the muscles that support your spine allowing you to stand taller, lifting your head and pulling your shoulders back. You’ll probably gain 2 inches in height.

Oh – and by the way – as we get older, there’s more and more research about the benefits of dancing. For neurodegenerative movement disorders like Parkinson’s (check out  Dance as Therapy for Individuals With Parkinson Disease ) , to helping joint pain:

“Dancing Can Help Senior Mobility
Study of seniors shows decreased knee-hip pain and increased ability to walk among those who dance”
(By Robert Preidt, HealthDay Reporter, FRIDAY, June 27, 2014, HealthDay News)
“Dancing can reduce seniors’ knee and hip pain and also improve their walking, a new, small study finds.
The research involved 34 seniors, average age 80, who all had pain or stiffness in their knees or hips as a result mainly of arthritis. The participants were assigned to a group that danced for 45 minutes up to two times a week for 12 weeks or to a control group that did not dance.
By the end of the 12 weeks, those who danced had less pain in their knees and hips and were able to walk faster, said Jean Krampe, an assistant professor of nursing at Saint Louis University and lead author of the study.
The use of pain medicines fell by 39 percent among seniors in the dance group but rose 21 percent among those who did not dance, she noted.
The findings about walking speed are important, she added, because seniors who walk too slowly are more likely to fall, be hospitalized or require care from others.
‘Doctors and nurses recognize gait speed as the sixth vital sign that can help us predict adverse outcomes for older adults,’ Krampe said in a university news release.”

If dancing can do that for 80-year-olds, think of what can it do for you!

And did I mention it’s good for the soul? When was the last time you let yourself go, turned up the stereo and did a little white-man-overbite?
There’s no better stress reliever than working up a sweat with a Latin beat – why do you think Zumba is so popular? Or challenge your brain by learning tap!

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From hip hop to belly-dancing to ballroom (my fave) grab a friend, your partner or go solo to a newcomer’s dance class. There are a ton of resources out there – and if you need help, just ask me – I know some peeps!

If you can’t tell, dance is one of my forever passions. For body, mind and a happy heart, I encourage everyone to release those inhibitions – and endorphins – and do a few high kicks.
Channel your inner Elaine and you’ll soon be saying “I KNOW I’m a good dancer!”

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