Four ways exercise can make you a better person | Alessio Bianchi
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Four ways exercise can make you a better person

Our bodies benefit from exercise, but does it help our minds as well? Could it even make you live more mindfully? The answer is a resounding yes, but in ways that may surprise and motivate you.

Even if you need to lose some weight or just get a little fitter, exercise isn’t just about achieving those physical goals. The reality is that our mental and physical health are woven together and a little exercise brings big mental health and mindfulness benefits.

1. Exercise can bring mindfulness closer, faster

You don’t need to be a fitness obsessive in order to live well, treat others decently and be happy.

But exercise can bring mindfulness closer, faster, as long as you do it safely and sensibly.

The secret is in using exercise to help overcome one of the big obstacles to mindfulness: distraction. After all, it’s distraction which often frustrates us, and distraction which can ruin our attempts at understanding ourselves better.

Exercise is a golden opportunity to create a bubble of calm around yourself, because there is a clear goal for you to focus on. In fact, an effective workout has many of the ingredients of a mindfulness exercise: you set an achievable goal, break it into small parts, and focus on it while becoming increasingly aware of your body and mind.

If you do it well, this can be applied to any exercise, whether it’s swimming, running, cycling or wellness-related exercise like pilates and yoga.

Not only does it tick the boxes for the mental aspects of mindfulness, it has proven physical benefits as well. Your body will begin to pump out useful hormones that boost your mood, and even help with digestion and sleep.

The NHS recommends exercise specifically because of the ways in which it promotes wellbeing, “because it brings about a sense of greater self-esteem, self-control, and the ability to rise to a challenge”.

It would be a mistake to think of exercise as a magical cure, because plenty of physically active people are unhappy. But exercise is a powerful tool for you in your quest to live more mindfully.

2. Exercise triggers a virtuous circle

Exercise comes with even more benefits than giving you a focus: it triggers a virtuous circle. Researchers at the University of Louisville in Kentucky found that people with increased mindfulness were more likely to exercise consistently. This means that exercise makes you happier and happier people exercise more. Once you’re in that loop you are constantly getting healthier and happier.

3. Exercise presents challenges

Exercising is not always easy, and that very fact makes it even more valuable for developing mindfulness. It presents challenges both in trying to do better and in overcoming obstacles.

For example, if you get into running you may have a distance or time you want to achieve as a marker of progress. On the flip side, you may get injured or have to go out and run when it’s cold and wet.

But mindfulness isn’t always about achievement, it’s also about being at ease with failure, as author and entrepreneur Letitia Gasca explained in a TED Talk in 2018: “Sharing your failures makes you stronger, not weaker,” Gasca says. “Being open to my vulnerability helped me embrace life lessons I wouldn’t have learned previously.”

Exercise is a golden opportunity to practise a vital aspect of mindfulness: dealing with failure. By not being able to lift that weight or beat your best time you can become a better person.

4. You can connect with others through exercise

A lot of people make the mistake of thinking mindfulness is a way to retreat inwards. That’s not what mindfulness is about, but it is a trap we can slip into. Mindful exercise helps us to avoid it by giving us a way to engage with others.

An example of how to do this comes from legendary marathon runner John Bingham, a champion of the slow runner. He best time was more than four hours, so he isn’t fast, but he is enthusiastic and positive.

He has helped to pioneer an approach to the marathon for people who, like him, aren’t bothered about speed. They call themselves ‘penguins’ in honour of Bingham’s famously awakward running style, they help to organise marathons with bands at each mile post and beer at the finish line.

Bingham once said of running marathons that “The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.” And that’s a pretty good mantra for anyone looking for a link between mindfulness and exercise.

Taking on a new exercise regime requires courage and determination, but it opens up opportunities to develop mindfulness in a myriad different ways. Exercise is a way to escape the distractions of the world without running away from the joys of interacting with others, while also making you healthier and happier.