Exercise and stress are linked in two ways: on one hand, exercise can be a go-to stress management method and on the other, if you over do it, a.k.a. overtrain, exercising can increase your stress levels.
We talk a lot about how to see fitness results and smash your race goals, but this article is all about the other side of exercise: stress relief.
We’ve already seen a shift towards using exercise as a way to ease stress but what may be less familiar to many is how to combine exercise with mindfulness practice.
Mindfulness provides many of the same benefits as exercise in relieving stress and anxiety so with that in mind, why not harness both techniques?
Here’s how to take the mindful approach to exercising.
What are Mindful Workouts?
Mindfulness is an optimal approach to doing exercises to relieve stress. Mindful workouts can come in a variety of forms, but the key is the mindset with which you approach exercise. Taking a mindful approach to a workout means being present and in the moment, not being judgmental of yourself, and entering a flow state with your movement.
On a deeper level, mindfulness allows you to understand what your body truly needs from both a performance and recovery perspective.
The practice of mindful exercise comprises:
- Being intentional with your movement
- Staying in-the-moment during your workout
- Strengthening the mind-body connection
- Accepting where you are at without judgment
The Benefits of Mindful Workouts
While there are obvious benefits to mindful workouts, a key takeaway for athletes of all levels is understanding how to use each training session to improve athletic performance, recovery and overall wellbeing.
Training programs put our bodies through a stress response during exercise – which is a good thing as this allows us to adapt to stimulus so that we get stronger, faster and more resilient. But, it also ratchets up hormones like cortisol, which can take a toll on our bodies if we’re not properly balancing our training.
To adapt effectively, athletes need to watch their stress levels and dial back intensity appropriately. Too much stress and cortisol can eventually impair recovery, change where fat is deposited, impair immune function and increase the likelihood of illness.
The good news is that mindful low-intensity workouts not only feel good in the moment, but measurably counteract stress response of intense training sessions.
That means that mindful workouts lead to:
- Faster and better recovery
- Quicker adaptation to stimulus
- Improved performance
How to do exercises that relieve stress a.k.a. mindful workouts
Clearly define the purpose of your workout, and remind yourself of it throughout. That might mean intentionally setting a goal for the day, choosing beforehand whether it is more beneficial to take a low or high-intensity approach, deciding specifically to focus on a particular muscle group, or setting and sticking to a workout duration.
Use your training history and recovery data to set meaningful goals for each training session.
The best training programs are structured for the individual and take into account recovery status, current ability and the purpose of each workout. You will maximize the benefits of your workout if you approach a training program with mindful intention.
Monitoring stress levels and checking in with your body is crucial to approaching your workout mindfully. Check your recovery status before a training session to determine what the intention for your workout should be.
Tip for Polar users
If you use the Polar Ignite or one of the Polar Vantage series sports watches, especially the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) Charge score in the Nightly Recharge feature can give you a good indication of your stress levels by monitoring your breathing rate and heart rate variability overnight.
If your stress hormones are high, opt for lowered intensity on poor recovery days.
Being mindful means keeping your focus trained on the current moment and the goal of each exercise. Distractions are an almost constant part of modern life. Turning off device notifications during your workout can be a big help, and even deciding not to listen to music on a run can allow you to tune in to your body in a new way.
Find something that keeps you concentrated on the now.
A simple way to stay focused during your workout is to choose an anchor to return to throughout your exercise. That could be the in-and-out of your breath as you run, the position of your feet on your yoga mat, or the movement patterns of your barbell lifts.
Strengthen the mind-body connection
There are many benefits to connecting your mind and body during movement, including the ability to engage specific muscle groups appropriately to maximize results. Focus on specific muscles in isolation, on contractions and posture, breathing, and how each movement feels.
Concentrating on the feel of movement in this way can help you iron out kinks in form and stimulate better muscle adaptation. It can even help you figure out the roots of any repetitive strain injuries you’ve developed and importantly, teach you how to use your body effectively.
Accept without judgment
More than just minimizing distractions, this includes letting go of past performance and of future goals. Mindful workouts are all about being committed and purposeful in your movement, not longing for different results or judging your current abilities or recovery level.
The benefit to acceptance is the ability to enter a flow state with your movement, which can give you significant insight into your current abilities. Reflecting on your performance at a later time can help you improve, but during the workout it can be a distraction. Try letting go of thoughts about how long the workout is, how difficult it might be, or what your cooldown is going to look like.
Having compassion for yourself is a hallmark of mindfulness. Choose your workout appropriately based on your current abilities and recovery status. If you aren’t feeling well-recovered, that means choosing a lower-intensity workout like walking, stretching or longer-form cardio.
Examples of Exercises to Relieve Stress
Workouts that are particularly helpful when cultivating mindfulness include training styles that ask you to form an understanding of where your body is in space.
An easy way to do this is to take a stretching class where there are minimal distractions and you are asked to focus on breathing and posture. Guided yoga classes are a great place to start.
Polar Ignite’s daily workout suggestions can help you tune into your body’s needs and develop an understanding of how to maximize mindfulness and recovery.
Choosing low-intensity and active recovery workouts that you can do at home or without the use of a gym are another great option. Online instructional videos or apps are abundant and can help you find a new recovery routine.
Mindful workouts are a great way to relieve stress, but their impact goes much deeper. When you’re in the moment and moving with intention, you can gain a better understanding of how to improve long term performance and recovery potential. In the end, that’s invaluable to overall wellbeing and fitness.
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Please note that the information provided in the Polar Blog articles cannot replace individual advice from health professionals. Please consult your physician before starting a new fitness program.