As I sit on a stability ball and stare off into space, my mind drifts to thoughts of meeting up with friends after work. I then wonder what time it is, and whether I’ll have enough energy for a quick workout after my last client. Suddenly, my attention returns to my current client, who appears exhausted and annoyed as she asks, “How many more of these do you want me to do?” I cover my shame with sarcasm and belt out some perfunctory response like, “Come on, girl, you’ve got three more!” Three more? I have no idea how many she’s done. Soon enough, my mind wanders again. It’s easy to shrug this off with excuses: I’m on my seventh client of the day, I feel tired, I’ve watched this same exercise performed at least a thousand times—if not a million. Maybe I’m burned out with personal training, I think. My mind drifts to thoughts of other jobs that could be more interesting or financially rewarding. I should get into acting, commercial real estate or banking. Then I would be happy.
Does this sound familiar?
What if my dissatisfied rumination has nothing to do with the client or some greener-grass job, but instead is caused by the habit of mind-wandering? This article explores how you can break that habit and become a more mindful—and fulfilled—personal trainer.
Matt Killingsworth, PhD, suggests that there’s a correlation between mind-wandering and our experience of happiness. Killingsworth, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholar, has proved that we are less happy when our minds wander—even to pleasant memories or grand future fantasies—than we are when we’re fully present and engaged in the current moment. And it looks like there is a lot of room for improvement: His studies concluded that people’s minds wander 47% of the time! Could our inability to stay present be making us unhappy, rather than it being our unhappiness that leads us to mind-wandering? According to research, the answer is yes (Killingsworth & Gilbert 2010).
For some time now, we’ve known about the importance of training the body. But mind-training is fairly new to our culture. Leading this trend is the practice of mindfulness, which has developed its modern form primarily through the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, who created the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in 1979 (Center for Mindfulness 2015). Back then, finding a doctor who also taught meditation was pretty radical; the combination is more common today owing to its proven health benefits. A wealth of journal articles has been published on the myriad benefits of mindfulness, and the information has prompted programs to pop up at major universities and hospitals around the country.
The practice of mindfulness is also being integrated into the workplace, as corporations offer in-house mindfulness classes and tickets to mindfulness tech conferences such as Wisdom 2.0. These conferences have attracted big players like Google, Facebook, Ford, Aetna, Twitter, LinkedIn, eBay, Zappos and PayPal (Boyce 2015).Mindfulness has also broken into mainstream television. Recently, journalist Anderson Cooper presented a segment on the topic during the TV news show 60 Minutes. Sports teams, like the Seattle Seahawks, have been quite open about their commitment to mindfulness meditation.
In 2014, Time Magazine rightly named this emerging movement the “Mindful Revolution” (Pickert 2014). In much the same way that the fitness industry grew in the 1980s as a response to the declining health in the United States, mindfulness is becoming a possible solution for dissatisfaction and unhappiness at a time when constant busyness, overstimulation and distraction are the new norm.
So what is mindfulness, and how can it help fitness professionals to be more present for their clients, better at their jobs and more satisfied with life?
The Present Moment
According to Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness means “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.” Let’s break that down. Purposeful attention involves setting an intention to be present to what you’re doing. As a former mindless trainer, I knew it was a challenge to continuously attend to my clients, and I felt embarrassed when I was caught drifting. Yet I never considered making an effort to do anything differently. Now, I help others become more present by taking them through the following steps:
Step One: Set an intention. What does it really mean to be in the present moment? Right now, as I set the intention to be present to this very moment, I notice the weight of my body in the chair as well as the movement of my fingers on the keyboard. I pause and look out the window; now I see the greenness of the palm trees and blueness of the sky. As I take a breath, I sense a gentle expansion and retraction of my ribs and abdomen. After a few moments of looking and listening, a thought encourages me to get back to work. As I begin again, I notice increased enjoyment in the flow of writing this article.
Step Two: Focus on the senses. The present moment is an ongoing experience constructed by our five senses—and by the mind, which perceives, interprets and commentates on it all. Fully noticing our entire experience as it’s happening is what being present means. We accomplish this through intentional observation of the sensations, sounds, sights, scents or tastes that are most prominent in our awareness. However, after a few moments of experiencing life through the lens of our senses, the mind inevitably begins to ponder or tell a story about whatever’s happening. This is normal, but when it goes unchecked it can lead to an extra layer of stress.
Step Three: Acknowledge and return. The third step is to simply acknowledge the thinking rather than allow the mind to get caught up in the plot line. When the mind wanders off, the goal is to return to the present moment without judgment and start the practice again.
Becoming more mindful may not be as easy as it sounds. However, like physical strength and muscle size, mindfulness corresponds to specific brain regions, and it can be improved with training. Through neuroplasticity—or change in neural pathways in the brain due to training or behavior change—the left prefrontal cortex thickens, enabling us to stay present for longer periods of time.
When you’re training physically deconditioned clients, it’s appropriate to first address structural stability rather than throwing these people into a high-intensity class on day one. Similarly, for “deconditioned” mindfulness students, remaining present for any sustained period of time can be overwhelming, if not impossible. For that reason, mindfulness training begins with a practice intended to cultivate concentration and focus. It’s referred to as “Awareness of Breath meditation,” and it involves sitting still and in relative silence for 3–5 minutes. Here are the basic instructions:
- As the primary object of attention, set the intention to be present to your breath.
- Feel your natural, uncontrolled breath wherever it’s most vivid in the body (for example, at the tip of the nose or in the chest, ribs or belly).
- As soon as you notice that your mind has wandered off, gently return your attention to the breath and begin again.
Awareness of Breath is considered a “formal practice” and is a great foundational exercise, but meditation is not the only way to train your “mindfulness muscle.” In the Mindful Performance Enhancement Awareness & Knowledge course at the University of California, San Diego, I teach trainers, athletes and corporate executives to ask themselves the question, “Where are my feet?” It’s almost childlike in its simplicity, but it is highly effective in helping participants shift from thinking mode to sensing mode. As soon as my mPEAK students notice that they’re getting stressed or distracted, if they pause to connect with the direct sensations in their feet they are instantly pulled back to the here and now.
Another way to train mindfulness throughout the day is to make your current client the main object of your attention. Coordinate your breath with your client’s breath, or count reps as an intentional concentration practice. Setting an object of attention helps to anchor you in the present moment. When you notice that your attention has drifted, first return to sensations in your own body. Then observe your client breathing and moving; count reps and notice subtle distinctions in the experience of fully being present with your client.
Patience Makes Progress
As you begin your mindfulness practice, take your own good advice and be patient with yourself. Stay committed to your practice, and don’t look for quick results. Once you’re stable at 5 minutes of formal meditation, progress in small increments until you reach your ideal time. Treat your mindfulness practice as an experiment, and stay open and curious about how it begins to impact your connection with your clients and the experience you have as a trainer. As your mind wanders less, notice if it’s easier to get in the flow or if you are indeed feeling happier and more peaceful in your career and in your life.