Doctors and fitness experts often discuss the mind and body as independent entities. However, increasing evidence suggests that your ability to connect your thoughts to your physical body can actually have a huge impact on your mental and bodily wellness.
For example, you might feel the physical sensations of stress, like an increased heartbeat, resolve themselves when you focus your thoughts on a happy memory or a calming mantra. Likewise, you can use your mind-body connection to improve your workouts and boost physical fitness. Here’s how your mental fitness equates to physical results.
The mind-body connection refers to using your thoughts to influence a physical bodily outcome. How does it work? When you imagine an event, your body mentally and physically responds similarly to how it would if the event actually occurred. Think about this: have you ever felt nervous about giving a presentation or attending a job interview? You likely imagined all the things that could go wrong. As a result, your mind becomes even more frazzled, your hands sweat, and you feel nauseous. This is the result of the mind-body connection. Although you’re only imagining the poor outcomes, your body is physically reacting.
This connection works both ways. What you do to your body can also have an effect on your mind. For example, when you eat a big meal full of processed foods, you likely feel lethargic. This sense of discomfort doesn’t reside only in the body – it also impacts your mood, thoughts, and feelings. On the other hand, when you eat fresh foods, you experience a spike in energy, a clearer mind, and more positive thoughts.
What’s most exciting is that you can use this connection to your advantage. You can also use it for a variety of purposes. For example, you can use the mind-body connection to improve your mental wellness and decrease anxiety. You can also use this practice to improve your sleep, decrease pain, improve recovery time from injury, boost the immune system, and enhance your sense of control.
The same can be said for your fitness. You may have heard of the mind-body connection referred to as the mind-muscle connection in the context of the gym. This involves zeroing in on your muscles as you perform an exercise, which helps you move them more efficiently and with proper form. This, in turn, can bring you better results than if you were to be distracted throughout your workout by music or friends. Mental fitness equals physical fitness.
Focusing on your muscles as you work them can help you improve your form. For example, if you’re doing bicep curls while watching TV, you might be holding your elbows too far from the body or throwing the weight around without realizing it. In comparison, focusing on the motion itself allows you to check in on your form and perform the move correctly, with a full range of motion.
Mental fitness literally improves your strength. In a 2017 study, participants completed a low-intensity strength training program over the course of six weeks. One group of participants was required to put in the high mental effort during the workouts, while the other put in low mental effort. The study found that those in the high mental effort group experienced more strength gains that the other group, despite doing the same workouts.
One study found evidence supporting the idea that focusing intently on the muscle you’re working as you contract it leads to better increases in muscle size. In other words, thinking about how the muscle feels as you work it enhances muscle fiber activation and recruitment, leading to more gains.
It might go without saying, but when you’re focused on the muscle you’re working, you’re also more in-tune with all of your biological feedback. That means you can respond appropriately – increasing weight or reps depending on what your body is telling you. In comparison, if you let your mind wander while you workout, you likely miss these cues.
Working out can also be a form of mindfulness meditation. That is, focusing on the present moment. While it’s easy to listen to a podcast and zone out during your workout, you end up losing sight of the reason you’re exercising in the first place. In comparison, using the mind-body connection means you’re intrinsically focused on your movements, which makes a huge difference in your results as well as your mental fitness.
Thinking about what you’re doing as you do it leads to better performance, which ultimately means better results. It can mean the difference between phoning in a workout just to check it off the list and actually working hard. Yes, you might work out for the mental wellness benefits, but connecting to your muscles will bring the physical fitness results that keep you coming back for more.
The mind-body connection is a simple and straightforward technique. To employ it in your own workouts, you need to focus on the muscle you’re working as you contract it. For some people, it’s helpful to watch the muscle itself as you do the exercise, like looking at your tricep in the mirror as you do tricep kickbacks.
It can also be helpful to mentally picture the muscle. For example, as you do a squat, mentally imagine your glutes and quads lengthening and contracting as your go through the motion. You may even put your hand on the muscle to feel the contraction, which can help you connect mentally. For instance, you can place a hand on your glute as you do a single-leg deadlift, while the other hand holds onto your weight. Think about how the muscle feels under your hand and notice the squeeze as you contract.
It can also be helpful to google what muscles each exercise works. You may be focusing on the wrong muscles or you could be unaware that an exercise works for multiple muscle groups. Knowing what you’re targeting, especially with more complex movements, can boost your mind-body connection.
No matter what your fitness goals are, the mind-body connection is a key factor in helping you reach them. Although it can take some time, building your mental fitness can have huge results that you can visually see. If you need support on your health, check out our LivingWell wellness retreat – we’re here to help you reach your wellness goals!