Mindfulness, Fitness and You by Jena Eberly

Charlotte

Jena Eberly currently serves as a Residence Director for Lake Forest College. Previously she completed her graduate work at Loyola University Chicago where she worked in student activities. Jena worked in the fitness industry for the last seven years, teaching multiple group formats and coaching personal training sessions. Connect with her on twitter at @JenEberly.

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“What we achieve inwardly will change our outer reality.” –Plutarch

When we hear the word “fitness”, it is often associated with yoga, weights, running, or other types of physical exercise. Sometimes the word even brings a competitive connotation with it and implies one type of exercise is better than another. Finding an appropriate definition to “fitness” is actually harder than it appears. Merriam-Webster’s  (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fitness) defines fitness as the state of being “fit” and the ability to transmit genes for being in a good state of health. Other internet searches turn up various definitions related to physical health but it is difficult to find a definition that allows fitness to include all aspects of our health—mind, body, and soul.

I taught fitness classes for about seven years. Teaching group exercise classes gives you a lot of insight into what motivates people. Motivation for exercise parallels motivation for a lot of other things in our lives, so teaching everything from boot camp to indoor cycling gave me constant case studies into understanding what helps people push through obstacles they think are insurmountable. Teaching fitness, both in group settings and one-on-one sessions, is also largely related to being able to trust yourself–including your abilities and your limits. Physical exercise can be very intimidating because we consistently set a standard for ourselves that only people in Runner’s World can usually achieve. We often have to work through more mental barriers with a workout than a physical one. Why should anyone want to go back to a dark room, spinning on a bike that goes nowhere? What I learned to love about group exercise and the fitness world is that it teaches people how to push through mental blocks, gives them a community to cheer them on, and relies heavily on the experience more than the workout itself.

As any fitness instructor may tell you, group exercise is about a collective effort of people with various physical backgrounds and fitness levels who have the ability to come together for one common purpose: health. The great irony of group fitness classes is that it isn’t about anyone else in the room. And, the motivation to keep coming back to class is not from the format or the instructor. Real motivation comes from within. Avoiding competition in a setting like this is hard. It takes more mental effort than physical effort to ignore what’s happening around you and stay focused on your own personal goals.

Believe it or not, I had more conversations about body image and positive thinking as a fitness instructor and personal trainer than I actually did about workouts. I believe this is because our physical health is a reflection of our own mindfulness. We know that healthy eating can help aid in a healthy physical body, and we seem to pay more attention to this piece of fitness than any other part. What is often forgotten is that our mind truly affects everything we do, whether you’re cycling in a dark room or sitting on the beach. Rarely do we include a holistic version of fitness into the conversation, which is dependent on how we think and what we think about. Too often we think about the tangible outcome, the scale, and how we look while we are squatting with those dumbbells. While physical health is incredibly important, it’s only one component of a healthy state of being.

Mindfulness is about leaning in to our life experiences, regardless of how challenging they may be. I believe fitness is inclusive of our ability to be mindful because without mental fitness we can’t run further than we thought, bike longer than we believed we could, or cross a finish line to a race we’ve only ever watched from the sidelines. We also can’t finish that project at work, enjoy a friend’s company, or sleep at night when our brain is consumed with everything else but what is presently in front of us. Our ability to believe in ourselves, and the courage to acknowledge when we’ve hit our limits, comes from an internal place that is mindful of what our whole mind, body, and soul need.

I would often yell from into my microphone while teaching, “This is temporary!” Other phrases I would use, probably too often, included pushing people to “listen to your body” and “make a decision” about the next circuit. I broke up my classes into segments, giving people opportunity to make their own choices about what they could do and to learn the difference between a physical block and a mental one. It takes a lot of practice—really, our whole life long—to learn what is stopping us from pursuing something. These principles I used to teach with have become my life motto through various physical, mental, and emotional struggles. Whatever we may endure—it is temporary and we have to listen to ourselves in order to move forward and gain any ground.

About two months ago I finally made a decision that I had put on hold for a long time. Growing up with dogs, I had wanted to adopt one of my own for the longest time but wasn’t sure I was ready. Eventually, I listened to my heart and made the choice to adopt a four-legged furry family member. Charlotte has taught me a lot about mindfulness in the last couple of months. Her happy spirit has reminded me of how much fun a simple walk can be, what a blessing it is to be able to run, and how precious the present really is. Watching her grow and learn to trust me after her experiences from abuse has been an incredible lesson in patience, stress-management, and love. Paying more attention to these little moments has not only increased my joy, but it has put into perspective what I once felt was stressful and allowed me to enjoy the parts of my day I too often overlook. I feel more fit today than I did two months ago, not because of logging more miles or attending more yoga classes, but because I gave myself the freedom to be mindful and experience more.

Not giving attention to the distractions that plague our lives takes constant practice. But, honestly, so does everything else. Making decisions that propel us forward, whether you are biking up an imaginary hill or making a healthier choice for your own life, are scary because we aren’t sure if we can do it. It’s a risk to commit to sitting in that saddle and pushing through lactic acid pain because you might have to stand up. It’s a risk to run a 5k because you might not finish. It’s a risk to adopt a dog because they might hate their crate, their food, or even you. But, it’s more of a risk to not take one at all.

What we achieve inwardly will give us the courage to press forward in our outer experiences—physically, mentally, and emotionally. Real fitness isn’t about how fast your mile is or how many spin classes you attended last week. Fitness is about knowing yourself from the inside out, never giving up on who you are, and living for the experiences life gives you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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