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Stop thinking, start exercising

by Dr. Jenn Bennett

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Exercise. Heavy breathing, sweating, cramps in places you never knew existed, and the fit folk gleaming in their spandex around you…sound familiar?

The anxiety felt when starting a new exercise routine can leave even the most motivated of us reaching for the TV remote. We might even start associating the very sight of our gym-wear with discomfort and worry. Exercise anxiety can be so overwhelming that we end up desperately trying to avoid anything and everything that might make us uncomfortable. The truth is, anxiety is almost always there, lurking in the background in our thoughts and storylines. Although we can’t stop it, we can choose how we respond to it. Mindfulness can create the space required to approach that dread of the gym or even jogging outside from a place of awareness. This awareness allows us to notice negative thoughts as passing storylines that are rarely grounded in reality. We can then choose to view them for what they are, just temporary ever changing thoughts. So if we want to get the most out of exercise and, dare I say enjoy it, starting with the mind is essential.

Taking a mindful approach to exercise:

Stop thinking, start experiencing

Too often we go through fitness classes just counting down the minutes or lost in thought. These thoughts might be self-critical and judging, or a means of trying to persuade and bribe ourselves to make it to the end of the class. Maybe you’re planning what to have for dinner, or thinking about the work you need to do for tomorrow’s meeting. As a result, we spend most of our time distracted through exercise rather than experiencing it. When you are exercising, try connecting with your body. Notice the different sensations you are experiencing. Be curious. How do sensations change with your movement?

With loving-kindness and non-judgemental awareness, we can see exercise for what it is and enjoy the process


Be kind to yourself. Listen to your body and learn to exercise when you are at your most positive and energized, whether that’s first thing, during your lunch break, or late into the evening. Make sure to craft your environment, too: fresh air, novelty, and music are all great ways to keep motivation and enjoyment high. Set small realistic goals, no one becomes an athlete overnight. Rather than criticizing or blaming ourselves, we can start to see that our struggles are pretty common. With loving-kindness and non-judgemental awareness, we can see exercise for what it is and enjoy the process.

Connect with why

Identifying and connecting with our motivation for exercising will provide the incentive to get through the most painful of workouts. Ask yourself what you’ll gain from exercising and what that will feel like. How important is it that you achieve this? Write down your “why” on a sticky note and keep it visible to remind yourself of your incentive and increase your motivation.

Just breathe

If we want our muscles to move, we need to give them oxygen. Without it, we feel tired, nauseated, tight, and dizzy. By focusing on slow, steady, mindful breathing, we provide our muscles with the necessary oxygen to leave us feeling energized, positive, and motivated.  

Have fun

In a world driven by competing deadlines, increasing workloads and mental traffic, we have forgotten how to play. Time flies when you’re having fun, right? Make exercising fun—try anything from dancing to yoga, boxing to cycling. Joining a group or a class is a great way to not only hold yourself accountable, but to make friends as well.

By taking a mindful approach to exercise you can have fun, achieve your goals, and maybe even learn a new skill. Before you know it, your fears will fade and exercising won’t seem like a horror movie after all.

Dr. Jenn Bennett

Dr. Jenn Bennett is a performance psychologist specialized in the mind-body connection. She completed her doctorate in the psychology of performance blocks, and the use of less-conscious methods as treatment. She is an applied practitioner working in elite sport and business. She is also a researcher exploring emotion-based problems affecting the body and mind, and the use of mindfulness for health, wellbeing, and performance.