Here’s the big dilemma: You’re stressed. But you don’t have time for the very activity that you know might help alleviate the overwhelm. This is a conundrum many of us face and will be a major topic of discussion as we enter into Stress Awareness Month this April.
What might relieve stress? Exercise and sleep are big ones. Another that has gained increasing attention, along with a wellspring of recent empirical evidence to support it, is mindfulness meditation. It’s been shown to lower the biomarkers associated with the stress response, reduce the symptoms associated with anxiety, and help people more adeptly cope in stressful situations. But still, how are we supposed to fit exercise, at least eight hours of sleep, and meditation into our daily routines?
I fully identify with this issue. I am a full time writer, my husband works long hours, we have a young daughter and a dog, a house to take care of, and countless other responsibilities. We often bite off more than we can chew. The inability to find time to take care of ourselves during the very period of life when we probably need it most is troubling.
As a long-time runner with a graduate degree in sports psychology and over a decade spent as a journalist covering topics related to fitness, health, and wellness, I sought out a workaround to attenuate stress. While I couldn’t often find time to sit and meditate to generate space and ease in my priority-rattled mind, I wondered if I might be able to incorporate it into something I was already doing. Enter: mindful movement.
Mindfulness is all about upholding present moment awareness of your body, mind, and surroundings in a nonjudgmental manner. Mindful running is meditative movement—a process that trains you to exist in the moment with greater awareness as you run. It teaches you to lean into experiences with superior intention and offers you agency when adjustments are necessary.
I initially figured that mindfulness purists might identify my unique approach to meditation as sacrilege, but as I interviewed experts for my new book, Mindful Running, I discovered I couldn’t have been more wrong. In fact, without exception, every researcher in the field of contemplative neuroscience with whom I spoke also happened to identify as an endurance athlete. One was an Ironman triathlete, another was a mountain biker, and another a marathoner. All said that they too applied the principles of mindfulness to their chosen activity.
Indeed, if running isn’t your thing, integrating mindfulness into other activities you’re already doing is a great way to log meditative minutes, whether its walking, hiking, biking, or gardening. I think the two prerequisites for entering the meditative state is that it’s a fairly repetitive, uncomplicated movement and that it can be done outdoors. Of course you can get around these things, for instance, if you work out at the gym, but if you’re looking to stack the deck in your favor, new research suggests that meditating outdoors may offer you a boost.
So how do you put mindful movement into action? It’s all about dropping into the current state of your surroundings, body, and mind. I start my daily run by spending a couple of moments tapping into my five senses to get a full picture of my surroundings. Next, I do a head to toe body scan to take stock of how I’m feeling physically. Finally, I tap into the content of my cognitions to get a general sense of my mental weather that day. After that, I focus in on the in-and-out of my breath or the left-right-left of my feet to keep me tuned into the moment. Every time my mind wanders to worrying about what’s next in my day or ruminating about a past event, I simply take note and redirect to the present.
New York Times bestselling author, Dean Karnazes, known as the “Ultramarathon Man” and one of TIME magazine’s “Most Influential People in the World,” told me that for him, mindful running is “a vacation for the mind.” I wholeheartedly agree. As I implemented mindful movement into my daily routine, I discovered some immediate benefits. Noticing the thoughts and emotions careening into my consciousness led to a natural easing of body and brain. I also got better at responding to physical cues—knowing when my legs were overcooked from a workout or if I was worn down from a busy week. What’s more, I began to fully appreciate the brilliant sunrise over the lake I often ran around in the mornings.
Now-retired professional marathoner and American record holder in the half marathon, Ryan Hall, told me, “Being fully present is always my goal. If I’m worried about how many miles ahead I have to go or I’m beating myself up for mistakes I made in the miles I’ve already run, it never goes well for me. Being present is a lost art in our culture today.”
Best of all, neuroplasticity research suggests that the more you train your brain to remain in a present-focused state, the more it becomes part of your modus operandi. Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., an assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest School of Medicine who studies how mindfulness meditation affects the brain told me, “Mindfulness meditation trains your mind and brain to stabilize attention and it increases your ability to regulate emotions by being in the present moment . . . What’s happening is your personality becomes more present-centered, better able to focus, and better able to regulate emotions as a function of a potentially more efficient brain.”
Indeed, my mindful running practice has amounted to a greater sense of equanimity in all areas of my life, allowing me to not only handle life’s slings and arrows with increasing ease, but also to observe the simple joys. As a parent, I have become more present and patient and as a writer, more focused and able to avoid distraction.
No need for silence or a special cushion, just lace up your sneakers and head out the door to chase down a bit of zen. Although not a panacea or substitute for medical advice or treatment, mindfulness can be one of the sharpest arrows in your quiver both on and off the running trails.