While #mindfulfitness may seem like another shaming Instagram tag, Stylist looks at the real ways to practice mindful fitness and how to cut through the BS
If your Instagram feed is anything like mine, you’ll have spent December being bombarded by gym ads promising a ‘guilt-free Christmas’ – either by working out throughout the festive season or by swapping delicious foods for disgusting low-calorie knockoffs.
One post that came up recently from a ripped influencer showed her lounging in the sun, six pack rippling, with the caption: “Any other excuses not to workout? Sorry, but there are NONE. I love motivating people to work harder on themselves. Cause there is always an inner voice, telling you to take it easy - don’t trust this voice! #mindfulfitness.”
Mindful fitness has become the watchword in the wellness world, supposedly adding a more holistic aspect to an industry continually accused of promoting disordered habits.
Go on Instagram and there are thousands of accounts dedicated to mindful fitness, while #mindfulnesspractice has over 90K posts and #mindfulness has over 16M.
Is there anything genuinely mindful about shaming people into ignoring their bodies in the pursuit of gains? It sounds like a ploy for influencers and brands to take advantage of an increasingly woke audience who want more from their workouts.
But fitness definitely can be mindful, and lots of us are treating our workouts as a form of moving meditation.
For years, the wellness scene has appeared to be divided into two camps: the fitness fanatics and the meditation-lovers. And now, increasingly, they seem to be merging.
Sarah Malcolm is a yoga teacher, wellness Instagrammer and co-host of the Kitchen Club Podcast. At 12.2K followers, it’s clear that she’s found a market for her holistic message which encompasses everything from yoga to self-care and intuitive eating.
“Fitness changed for me when my intention changed, when my goals changed,” she says.
“Working for aesthetic goals is where a lot of us start in our fitness journeys, and that’s definitely where it started for me, with the goal to lose weight. But when your goals start to shift to become more than weight loss and aesthetics and you start moving your body in a way that will support your entire life, is where I think ‘mindful fitness’ steps in.”
She explains that yoga shifted her mindset from exercising for body image into mindfully moving for physical and mental wellbeing.
“Movement that aids your muscles, bone density, strength, joint mobility and flexibility but which also has an affect on your mental health, I believe to be mindful. So, whatever that is for you, running, weight training, yoga, dancing; if there is intention and love behind what you’re doing, it will aid your body mentally too.”
Roz Purcell is the author of No Fuss Vegan and the founder of The Hike Life. When I asked her about the fitness industry’s good, bad and ugly response to mindful fitness, she told me she doesn’t think it has genuinely changed to become more holistic but consumers are becoming wiser to the “BS side of it”.
“It’s sad because a lot of the fitness industry relies on failure again and again. It also relies on us wanting to physically change and plays on the idea that we will be happy once we do - which I think we all know is a lot of crap!”
So, how can we navigate the marketing machine to achieve a deeper sense of self through movement?
“Mindfulness can come in different shapes and sizes for people but for me, it’s doing something that brings me to the present. I used to train to be a smaller version of myself, as a form of punishment to change my body. Now I’ve completely flipped and train because I love my body.”
A keen boxing enthusiast, Roz tells Stylist that sometimes doing something that’s all consuming is just what you need to do to forget about what’s going on in your head.
“When I get overwhelmed, down or worried, training high intensity is the only thing that gives me time off from everything.”
But that’s not to say that there aren’t classes out there which don’t offer a mental workout alongside a sweaty one.
“A few studios such as Rowbots are now incorporating mental fitness into their workouts,” explains fitness and wellness comms guru, Tori Porter.
“I think spin trainers in particular also do a good job of reminding you to focus on your body during the workout with their running commentary! Plus many warm ups now include mobility and mindful movement.”
Gyms and classes aside, perhaps the easiest (and cheapest) way to start moving mindfully is to get outside. The UK is suffering an epidemic of poor mental health at a time when we spend less time in nature than ever before.
Mental health issues in young people have increased six fold since 1995, according to a 2018 study published in the journal Psychological Medicine. If we’re not being shuttled to offices in underground tin cans, we’re engrossed in technology at home.
And maybe that also explains the rise of fresh water swimming. Research from the most recent Sport England Active Lives survey shows that more than 4.1 million people swam in lakes, lochs, rivers and seas between November 2017 and 2018, with the number of Brits engaging in open water swimming in November alone almost doubling year on year.
Nicola Slawson is a journalist who navigates living in a city like London by making time to swim in the ladies’ pond on Hampstead Heath.
“I love going swimming in my local swimming baths but there’s a big difference between that and the ladies’ pond,” she says. “If I’m feeling stressed or someone’s pissed me off, I’ll go to the ladies’ pond instead of the gym and everything will be right with the world afterwards. And that’s partly because I walk there; it’s about a 25-minute walk there and back through Highgate Woods and over the Heath.”
That’s not to say that swimming in the ponds isn’t still a pretty tiring form of exercise; there aren’t any lanes or any sides to hold onto - and it can be cold.
Nicola describes it as a “healing place” where she’s able to swim and watch the wildlife - whether that’s dancing dragonflies or other swimmers. The very act of getting into the water is a mindful one: “You have to be careful to acclimatise to the water and you do that by breathing deeply, so that also helps to be mindful. And that cold also helps you to really arrive and be in the present.”
But does mindful fitness mean abandoning any hope of achieving a personal best?
James Thomas, AKA Fudgie Runs, is an ASICS frontrunner who initially started running as a means of losing weight and quickly started smashing out crazy times. It was only last year that he started heading out for a jog before work as a means of clearing his head.
He explains: “I started meeting people through social media who were asking me why I was always racing. They helped me to understand that you can’t run quickly all the time - you have to enjoy it for it to clear your head.
“So I started running after a stressful day at work and now, whenever I had any big decisions to make, I’ll go for a run and let my mind go free. It helps me think clearer - it’s a release and a freedom when you’re not running for a time. You just let your body move, let your mind run free, it’s really natural.”
But that’s not to say that it’s wrong to have a PB as a fitness goal. It’s a fact that some of us do want to get stronger and having a concrete sporting aim can absolutely keep you on track. The key is to work out why you want it.
Setting a mindful intention from the start
If you want 2020 to be the year that you achieve a fitness goal, have a think about the following:
What do I want? How am I going to achieve it? How will that make me feel?
If getting to your goal isn’t going to make you feel good (independently of anyone else’s opinion), then you may want to reframe your intention. Instead of having a goal to change your body, how about setting it to be ‘be able to run 5K, non-stop’?
Working up to a non-stop 5K (which you can do for free every Saturday at 9am at your local Parkrun, FYI), is super-achievable if you break it down into small chunks. You can start off by walking 5K, and slowly add in a few minutes of running each week until you’re running half and walking half. Keep on and you’ll soon build up to running the whole thing - and once you’ve run one 5K once, it’s very unlikely you’ll stop there, and whether you look different at the end of that process or not, you’ll have improved your cardiovascular fitness.
How will you feel when you come over the finish line after you run your first 5K? You’ll have to give it a go to find out - but I guarantee it’ll be longer-lasting than finally fitting into any outfit you’ve been eyeing up.
It doesn’t have to be running and it definitely doesn’t have to involve your dress size. You could commit to one dance class a week, walking to work, practicing yoga at home as a way of reducing stress, increasing your confidence, or making new friends.
Mindful fitness is all about understanding why you’re working out and enjoying the journey as much as the destination. You’ll reach your goal eventually but if you concentrate on how you’re getting there, you’ll get more out of it that you thought possible.
Tips for becoming mindfully fit
When you’re running, try to keep your mouth closed. “When I’m training and I’m doing my easy runs, that’s when I’ll concentrate on nasal breathing only so that I don’t get carried away. It helps me to really focus on what I’m doing,” says Sum Mattu, a PT and runner with Adidas Runners.
Before you head into the gym, think about why you’re there and how you want to feel afterwards. As you leave, assess whether you met that mental goal. Why not keep a gym journal? On one page, keep a note of what you’ve done physically and on the other, jot down how you felt during and afterwards.
Head outdoors. Swap the treadmill for the park, the bus for a walk, the pool for a lido or pond if you can. Leave weight loss in the background and concentrate on more immediate sensations like boosting your confidence, distressing and communing with nature.
Slow down. Once you let go of aesthetics as your main aim, you’ll be less committed to smashing hardcore sessions out every day or running around like a maniac. Try something like yin yoga - a very slow, deep form of yoga which is as much about meditation as it is movement.
Set your intentions. ‘Focus on why you are working out. Are you working out because you want to or because you’re forcing yourself to?’, says Tori.
Miranda Larbi is a freelance fitness and wellness journalist, and qualified personal trainer. When she’s not finding new vegan places to eat, she can be found training for the next marathon or cycling across London on a Tokyo bike.