How Being Mindful in the Gym Can Heal Your Mind, Body, and Heart

You look good on the outside, but have you checked in within?

Going to the gym and working out can be one of the best things people can do in their lives. Yet, there are a lot of things wrong with this setup that almost no one talks about.

Working out, especially in a gym, can become an array of comparisons and insecurities. In fact, I’d say most people set foot in a gym not because they want to be better versions of themselves but they’re too insecure to be who they are.

Consequently, this ostensibly healthy habit turns into a mental health disaster. This is why gyms often turn into dwellings of approval-seeking, diffident people striving for illusory perfection.

When the media and society at large promote “real men” to have large pecs and biceps and “beautiful girls” to be tall and slim, it’s easy for the “less perfect” ones to feel anxious.

And the matter is more pressing than we think— because people never actually lose that sense of insecurity — even after achieving what they set out to achieve.

So long I compared myself to others in the gym, I couldn’t let my insecurities go. I remember wearing full sleeves lest someone sees my underdeveloped arms.

Thus it creates a vicious cycle of desperation to fill a hole in our soul with a tighter butt or a bigger chest. Here’s how you avoid that and treat it as the healthy and mindful activity that it is.

Working Out, Not Zoning Out

According to a recent study published in the Journal of Health Psychology, the more mindful you are at the gym, the more satisfied you will feel with your workout — and the more you will want to follow your fitness schedule.

Yet, the gyms of the world are filled with people bangin’ and clankin’ plates because their ears are capped with noise-canceling headphones on hard metal.

Again, nothing wrong with that, physically speaking. But there’s a lot of mental damage happening. For one, you’re training your mind to wander off and not focus on what you’re doing.

The habit of zoning out carries on to your daily life when you can’t concentrate without music or stop your monkey-mind chatter.

To counter this, take out your earphones. Take a deep breath, and let the sounds of your environment come in. For the next five minutes notice your body in every movement you’re doing.

If you’re lifting weights, bring your attention — gently, kindly — to the sensation of lift, of burn, of heaviness. Really feel it. If you’re on that elliptical, feel the hilarious, roly-poly motion of the machine. Whatever you’re doing, do it fully, and put your full attention into it.

Before you begin a set, do a quick body scan. If you’re squatting, see how your feet, calves, quads, hamstrings, and glutes feel. This mind-muscle connection not only aids proper relaxation in rest periods but also promotes better muscle growth.

There have been times when I’ve pushed hard on an exercise despite the pain and ended up with an injury. Why? Because I was blindly pushing through with my music, failing to realize that the pain was real enough to stop.

Acute body awareness will also ensure proper form so you don’t start dancing to the beats of the song you’re listening to!

Question Your Why

In the past few months (before Covid closed the gyms), I was always the gym outlaw. I spent disproportionately more time on compound movements. I didn’t really care to take supplements and protein shakes. All this while others asked me “Why don’t you do to target ?”

My first thought was, “I don’t care” but I always said, “Yeah, I’ll do it after this one!” I too, like many a “gym bro,” used to obsess over how much I can lift and weigh.

Now, my workouts are more to connect with my body than to achieve a state of perfection that doesn’t exist.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all up for setting goals. But I’ve found most of them to be superficial. It was torturing the mind. You might look good on the outside, but what about on the inside?

If a significant part of your identity is centered around being a gym guy/girl, you can easily become an ego-centric slave to the gym trying to look good to impress others.

If someone says “Have you lost weight?” or “Seems you haven’t been training lately,” how would you feel? That’s a good test to see if you’re too attached to your body.

Too often we waste our energy in keeping up with an image we’ve built for ourselves. The initial happiness of achieving your fitness goals turns into fear of not keeping up with your newly-formed identity.

To be frank, I still think about my physical progress. I do catch a look of my bicep in the mirror. But being mindful of my ‘why’ has made me more relaxed.

The bottom line is this — I’m willing to trade peace of mind for having the “perfect body.” Perhaps you should reconsider your motivation and do the same.

Replacing Insecurities with Kindness

Our default reaction to someone better than us is to feel jealous. We can’t help but mull over our inferiority and desperation to have a similar body.

The goal of mindfulness then is to replace that feeling with kindness and compassion. Be happy for the other person for they’ve worked hard to build the structure you’re admiring. Don’t repent that they can lift more than you or have better stamina.

Insecurity and kindness can’t exist together. If you can cultivate deep compassion for others, you can’t beat yourself up. You can finally realize that it’s not a race or competition. We’re all in the gym to grow, not to out-flex others.

Appreciate others for their accomplishments. Rejoice with them. It’s a much healthier mindset to have in the long run, and make good friends while you’re at it!

Final Thought

Physical fitness is important but not when it comes at the cost of your mental peace. Let’s not trade-off the joy in our lives. Let’s not be so superficial that we forget what’s inside.

Yes, mindfulness can play a huge role in improving workout efficiency. But most of all, it helps to audit our feelings, desires, and insecurities so we can be well not only physically but also mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

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Written on April 18, 2021