Where the Mind Goes, the Body Follows

Writer Joanna Lam | November 9, 2017

What motivates people to exercise? While some wish to enhance physical attractiveness, others are peer pressured into joining the city’s ‘it’ gyms, while the rest may be motivated to improve health. In a fast-paced, ever-evolving metropolis like Hong Kong where work-life balance is far-fetched, many struggle to adhere to exercise routines.

The rise of mindfulness has sparked interest among researchers and sports psychologists worldwide, prompting them to look into the influence of this ancient meditation practice on maximising competitive sports performances and encourage ongoing physical activity.

Term Decoded

Originally rooted in Buddhist philosophy, mindfulness is a practice with more than 2,500 years of history. The concept has sprung up in the last decade, fuelled by a new global interest in yoga and meditation, its popularity meaning it is no longer constrained behind the closed doors of studios, rather branching out from clinical and therapeutic settings, entering classrooms and beyond.

Mindfulness is the quality or state of being aware, achieved by focusing on the present – one’s thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations within this space. Most sports psychologists will tell you that performance is 90 per cent mental. Dr Steven Selchen, director of mindfulness-based therapies at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center says,
“I often talk about mindfulness as training the mind the way physical exercise is training the body. Mindfulness is more about tuning into our experience so we can handle it better.”

Mental Fitness

The effectiveness of mindfulness to improve athletic accomplishments at a competitive level can be been seen among a growing number of elite athletes, including Michael Jordan and the Seattle Seahawks, who adopted meditation to enhance performance.

World-class tennis player Novak Djokovic has underlined how mental excellence is equally responsible for his success as the physical side. His book Serve to Win describes how the top-notch athlete practises mindfulness for 15 minutes daily, to let go of self-doubt, anger and worry, detach from negative past experiences, and learn not to worry about excelling in future competitions.

Karen Lo, sports psychologist and the founder and director of Inner Edge, a sport and performance psychology consulting company based in Hong Kong believes negative thoughts can have a detrimental impact on athletic performance, which can be reversed with a change in perception. She says, “If we are accepting, instead of criticising the situation, then this can prevent negative emotions from affecting our performance.”

Fatigue, soreness and stiffness can be obstacles that make sticking to an exercise programme challenging. Lo finds that appraising feelings and sensations can counteract habitual cognitive and physiological reactions. She says, “When encountering pain, notice which part of your body it comes from, be aware that it is happening and non-judgmentally notice the feelings. After a while, you will realise that you are going with the flow and that the pain will eventually fade.” She highlights the importance of initially identifying whether the pain is injury induced or a result of fatigue to employ the appropriate mindfulness technique. Being conscious of energy levels, aches and overall physical condition provides a scale for your current condition and can be beneficial in protecting the body from harm.

With an increasing number of elite athletes turning to mindfulness meditation to overcome adversity, stay focused, avoid distraction and perform better, it is safe to assume that more sportsmen will focus on making mental well-being a priority.

Daily Practice

While mindfulness is crucial in the field of professional sport, how does the practice of mindfulness enhance physical goals in our daily lives? When it comes to exercise, there is often a disconnect between being aware of the benefits of exercise and actually following through with a routine.

Natassia Syz, personal trainer and class instructor at TopFit believes many Hong Kongers lack consistency when it comes to exercise. “Long working hours, frequent business trips or travelling and loss of interest are just some of the factors that prevent them from pursing fitness goals,” she says. “Many people are often dedicated to fitness for a short period of time only. For example I have a client who would train every single day, but in a month or so, she is nowhere to be found.”

However, with frequent practice and meditation, mindfulness can potentially bridge the gap between good intentions and taking action, fuelling you with internal motivation. For instance, when you’re exhausted after a long day of work and debating whether or not to go to the gym, Syz says, “It’s important to acknowledge and accept your emotions, and that you are tired, but the key is to take a step back and understand that you are in the situation with a neutral, rational mindset. Remind yourself what got you to the gym in the first place, whether it is for health, to build strength or lose weight.”

Syz says, “It is crucial to set clear objectives prior to beginning your exercise routine to help maximise
workout intensity. It’s about pursuing dedication and consistency with a purpose.” Setting realistic, achievable goals also creates a foundation for consistency. “Begin by setting a long-term goal then break it down into smaller, manageable goals. Regular reviews of the results will give you a clearer picture of successes and set-backs, and allow you to readjust according to your physical condition and life circumstances.”

It’s crucial to set clear objectives prior to beginning your exercise routine to help maximise workout intensity
~ Natasha Syz