Mindful Eating and Running: The Health Benefits of Mindfulness

Mindful Eating
Photo by Pablo Merchan Montes

Mindfulness has been covered extensively on the site, with lots of helpful ideas and resources focusing on how to incorporate mindfulness into your daily life, and the benefits of doing so.

Mindfulness is applicable in a number of areas. Whether it’s addressing stress in the workplace, coping with personal challenges, or simply grounding your mind at the start of each day.

Research has repeatedly shown that the practice of mindfulness is associated with better mental health, relationship satisfaction, and self-regulation (Bishop et al, 2004, Hayes et al, 2006, Brown et al., 2007). Read on to find out more.

 

What Is Mindful Eating?

There’s the tendency to think that mindfulness should take place in a quiet room, but the core of the practice translates well to more active areas of daily life with wonderful benefits. One area you might not have considered applying the practice to could be your eating habits and exercise regime.

In our busy and tech-focused lives, it’s common for our schedules to become overwhelming. It’s not uncommon to forget to eat lunch. Or if we do remember to eat, we scoff our meal down without really thinking if we’re giving our body what it needs.

How often have you eaten a meal, only to still feel hungry afterwards? Rarely do we give our brains and bodies the time they need to process the fact that food has arrived or take the time to enjoy being present at meal times.

According to the Center for Mindful Eating, mindful eating incorporates the practice of meditation and consciousness to help you identify what you eat, when you eat, why you eat, and to appreciate food as you eat it.

Through practicing mindful eating, you can become more aware of your eating habits – good and bad – and make the changes needed to improve your sense of well-being that can be achieved through eating. It’s a way of listening to your body’s cues to understand when you’re hungry, thirsty, satiated, and the nutrients its craving.

The principles of mindful eating were originally developed by a team of 19 psychology and therapy professionals at the Center for Mindful Eating. They’re a great starting point for developing your knowledge in this area. The Center has extensive resources, but some general aspects of mindful eating include:

  • Engaging all of your senses when selecting which foods to eat and paying attention to how they look, feel, smell and taste.
  • Creating time to choose, prepare and cook meals with intention.
  • Paying attention to how your body responds to different foods physically.
  • Raising awareness of the cues that guide and inform when you eat and when to stop eating.

 

Someone who uses the practice of mindfulness when eating:

  • Accepts there is no wrong or right way to eat, but there are different levels of awareness relating to the experience of eating food.
  • Acknowledges that everyone’s eating experiences are unique to them.
  • Develops awareness of how their eating habits can support their overall health and well-being.
  • Understands the deep inter-connectedness that exists between all living beings, cultural dynamics, and how food choices impact these connections.

 

Mindful eating extends beyond the individual and encompasses the knowledge that how and what you eat has a wider effect on the world (Cheung, 2016).

 

The Benefits of Mindful Eating

One of the biggest benefits of mindful eating is the way it can help you build healthier choices when it comes to food, which has a number of roll-on benefits. Even generic mindfulness practices can have a significant impact on healthy eating habits (Jordan et al., 2014).

Weight Loss

One of the more widely reported benefits of mindful eating is weight loss. Mindful eating has been linked to weight management and successful weight loss in men who were categorized as obese (Dalen et al., 2010) and has even had success for women who report eating frequently in restaurant environments where the practice of mindfulness can be more difficult (Timmerman & Brown, 2012).

Another study found that people who eat more mindfully report eating smaller serving sizes of high-calorie foods, supporting their weight management journeys (Beshara, Hutchinson, & Wilson, 2013).

Unlike normal dieting methods, which can create feelings of deprivation, mindful eating encourages you to connect deeply with the physical need for food and the negative impact on the mind and body of eating too much of the wrong foods.

Psychological Well-Being and Other Benefits

Mindful eating also helps support psychological well-being. Different foods can have a direct effect on our emotional states (Kidwell & Hasford, 2014), so when you approach eating with mindfulness you exercise greater control over your emotional well being.

Other benefits of mindful eating may include:

  • Identifying emotional and reactive eating patterns that lead to poor emotional health.
  • Nourishment of the body, heart, mind and soul.
  • Greater awareness of your relationship with food and broader surroundings.
  • Better control and empowerment to make conscious, positive choices.

 

How to Practice Mindfulness with Food (Incl. 10 Tips)

Mindfulness Eating
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Practicing mindfulness with food can take a little bit of work, but making small changes can make a big difference over time.

As with any mindfulness practice, it’s about taking stock of everyday events that we usually let pass by, taking the time to act consciously and paying attention to our surroundings and physical presence within them.

I’ve read widely across some of the research and countless blog articles to draw together the below list of ten tips to help you get started with a mindful eating practice:

  1. Start with your shopping list – Before you begin shopping, write up a comprehensive shopping list. Consider the health benefits of everything you put on that list, it’s longevity in your kitchen pantry and nourishment value. Make sure you don’t shop when you’re hungry (which can lead to impulse buys) and stick to your list.
  2. Prepare for success – Think about the week ahead and plan accordingly. It can be easy to turn to junk foods, foods we know don’t bring us a lot of value, or no food at all when we’ve got a busy schedule and haven’t planned for our meals.
  3. Register hunger and act on it – This one can take a bit of practice. How often in the week do you really listen to the cues your body is giving you about what it needs? It’s a common mistake that we often think we’re hungry when actually our body is trying to tell us it’s thirsty (Mattes, 2010). Spend some time getting to better understand the cues your body is giving you, and act on them appropriately.
  4. Don’t wait until you’re ravenous to eat – If you skip meals and wait to give your body what it needs, you’ll come to the table ravenous, which usually leads to impulse eating and overeating as you seek to fill the void of hunger rather than eating meaningfully. This comes back to tip number two – always prepare for busy days and make time to eat.
  5. Consider your portion size – Starting with a smaller portion size can help you become more aware of the food that is actually on your plate and increase your focus on what you’re eating, as well as how it’s meeting your hunger needs.
  6. Create a ritual to accompany meal times – Research has found that even blowing out the candles on a birthday cake has shown to improve how it tastes (Vohs et al, 2013). Whether it’s saying grace, offering gratitude, or simply arranging your cutlery and napkin in a specific way, a small ritual before you begin eating can have a big difference on how you experience your food.
  7. Eat with all your senses engaged – Turn off the television, put your phone away, save the book for later – when you’re sitting down to a meal, give it your full undivided attention. Engage all your sense with each meal – how does it smell? What are the different textures? What colors are there? How does the food feel on your tongue, in your stomach? Savor the first bite and enjoy each moment.
  8. Take a break between bites – Another way of bringing your attention to your meal is to take a break between bites. Put your utensils down and pause as you complete your mouthful. Reflect on the food left on your plate before continuing with your meal. It physically forces you to slow down and gives you the chance to check in with your body and see how your fullness levels are doing.
  9. Chew slowly and pay attention – On a busy workday, it’s all too easy to inhale your food and move on to the next thing. Mindfulness is about taking this slowly – and that includes the physical motion of eating itself. Make a conscious effort to chew slower than you normally would. You might be surprised by how much you taste and how much quicker you feel fuller.
  10. Take the time to reflectMindfulness doesn’t end with the completion of your meal. Take a moment to consider how you’re feeling now you’ve eaten. Listen to your body and take note of how eating has created different sensations and emotional reactions.

 

The Proven Health Benefits of Mindfulness

We’ve visited the many health benefits of mindfulness in previous blog posts on the site, but it’s worth revisiting some of these in connection to food and exercise. Below is a quick look at five proven health benefits of mindfulness:

1. Decreased Stress

Numerous studies back the finding that mindfulness not only helps individuals to cope with stress but helps to reduce overall feelings of stress. Mindfulness can help to improve emotion and mood regulation, which helps with our ability to handle stress (Remmers, Topolinksi, & Koole, 2016). Mindfulness has also been linked to the development of more proactive coping strategies when faced with stressful situations, including facing up to situations and less avoidance (Donald & Atkins, 2016).

2. Enhanced ability to deal with illness

Many studies have focused on the use of mindfulness with cancer patients, and patients suffering from chronic or terminal illness. Again, several studies have linked mindfulness to reducing feelings of stress and anxiety (Zernicke et all, 2016) and others have linked mindfulness to reducing rumination and worry with cancer patients (Labelle et al, 2015). Overall, mindfulness has been shown to help patients focus more on improving their quality of life, over the physical pain they are experiencing (Garland & Howard, 2013).

Facilitation of recovery

Mindfulness not only aids patients to cope with illness, it has also been shown to aid recovery. Research has shown young breast cancer survivors who practiced mindfulness experienced a greater sense of self-compassion and decreased stress (Boyle et al, 2017). A combination of mindfulness, meditation and yoga facilitated post-traumatic growth in breast cancer survivors, alongside reducing anxiety around recovery (Tamagawa et al, 2015).

Decreased symptoms relating to depression and anxiety

Practicing mindfulness helps with self-regulation, leading to better control over emotional reactions (Brown et al., 2007). This can help with treating depression and anxiety as a tool to acknowledge and identify intense emotions, without accepting them as the only reality or backing away from the experience (Costa & Barnhofer, 2016).

How Does Mindful Running Work?

With the number of proven health benefits that mindfulness can bring to our daily lives, it makes sense that combining mindfulness with other healthy pursuits can really help elevate our sense of well-being.

Research is beginning to emerge that supports this. In one study by Alderman et al, 2016, they found that directed meditation combined with running or walking helped to reduce symptoms of depression for depressed participants by almost 40 per cent.

Mindfulness Running
Photo by John T from Unsplasj

Last year ASICs launched a world first ‘blackout track’ alongside ongoing research devised by Professor Samuele Marcorra, Director of Research at University of Kent’s School of Sport and Exercise, and Dr Jo Corbett, part of the Health Research Group at the University of Portsmouth.

Early results from the experiment have found that psychological factors, such as sight and sound, have a significant impact on performance.

The blackout track reduces sensory engagement, encouraging athletes to reflect inwardly and focus on their body, with great results.

So, how does mindful running work?

Chevy Rough, a performance and mindfulness coach with the ASICS Sound Mind Sound Body team advises it really is about being present. As with everything in mindfulness, it’s about being connected with your mind and body, your movement, and turning from external distractions to internal focus. Rough also says that with running the distractions can intensify as there are often other cultural pressures associated with running including how fast you’re running, how far you’re running and beating ‘personal bests’.

Rough and Charles Oxley, another coach with ASICS Sound Mind Sound Body offer the following advice for a mindful run:

  • Release yourself from external distractions and daily pressures.
  • Really listen to your body: your breathing, your postures, and your senses.
  • Use your breath to aid you. Mouth breathing is related to stress responses, so try to focus more on breathing through your nose.
  • Connect with memories associated with your body, past injuries or experiences relating to running. This can help you create deeper internal connections.
  • Keep the internal conversation between you and your body, not societal expectations.
  • Don’t worry about anchor points, timings, tracking devices – just listen to your body.

 

Most importantly though, advise Rough and Oxley, is to bring your body to a state of calm before you even begin your run. For many people, working out is done in between other activities in an already hectic day, meaning before you even get started on your mindful run, you’re already in a state of stress.

Before your warm-up, spend some time bringing yourself into a neutral state by practicing some deep breathing exercises. However long this takes – whether it’s five minutes or ten – take the time to prepare your mind before you prepare your body.

A Look at Mindful Walking

If mindful running doesn’t quite sound like your thing, there’s nothing to stop you trying out the same principles with mindful walking instead.

A mindful walk out in nature can have equally promising health benefits, with research showing that a break in nature can have a rejuvenating effect on the brain (Bratman et al, 2015). Meditation combined with walking has also been shown to improve states of anxiety in young people (Edwards, Rosenbaum & Loprinzi, 2017). Incorporating a mindful walk as a daily habit can help bring a greater sense of self-awareness and reduce stress. A few tips to help you approach a mindful walk include:

  • Bring your attention to your physical presence. Start at the top of your head and work your way all the way down to your toes. Focus on each of your facial features, your limbs, your back and abdomen. Notice the full connectedness of your body as you walk, and how every muscle is involved.
  • Notice how your arms and legs move as you walk, the feeling of the ground as you lay each foot down and move forward.
  • Bring your mind to your breath, feel it as you inhale and draw each breath deep into your lungs, feeling your ribs expand. Slowly exhale.
  • Engage all of your senses as you walk: what can you see, smell, hear and taste. How does the air feel against your skin?
  • Take in each sensation with curiosity and openness.

 

It’s normal if your mind becomes distracted. As with other mindfulness practice, don’t try and push the thoughts away. Allow them to enter your mind and gently let them go, bringing your mind calmly back to the present moment.

What Does A Mindful Workout Involve?

There is something comforting about allowing ourselves to zone out during a workout. It’s easy to go through the motions of activity – like running or walking – and let our minds wander while our body does its thing.

The difference in a mindful workout is instead of zoning out, we draw our mind back to the physical activity and focus on connecting the two back together. A mindful workout involves paying attention to the flow that happens in our body when we’re exercising, and the unity that exists between mind, body and breath.

 

5 Tips to Help Use Mindfulness with Exercise

The idea of mindfulness with exercise often sounds easier than reality. Again, I’ve taken a good look at the existing literature available and compiled the below five tips to help you create a more grounded practice of mindfulness when exercising:

  1. Prepare your mind before your body – As mentioned earlier, we often approach exercise within an already busy schedule. Make sure you take the time to bring your mind to a neutral state before beginning your exercise regime. A few minutes of deep, considered breathing should help to clear your mind, ready for your warm-up.
  2. Create a purpose every time you exercise – Exercise is often linked to one purpose: weight loss. While this purpose is fine in the long term, creating another set of purpose around this end goal can help you maintain focus. This could be anything from working out for a set amount of time or focusing on a specific muscle group, to increasing your energy for the day or reducing stress.
  3. Take it slow – Don’t approach exercise as another ‘to-do’ item on your chore list to be rushed through and ticked off. Give yourself the permission to take your time, engage with your full body, acknowledge and appreciate how exercise is benefiting your mind and body.
  4. Bring attention to your breathing – When your mind starts to wander, bring your attention back to your breathing. Focus on the inhalation, through your nose, and exhalation. Feel your breath move through your body and out again.
  5. Remember to reflect – Take a moment after your workout to reflect on how you’re feeling. During your cool down, pay attention to your heart rate as it slows, the stretch of your muscles, and your breathing. Allow yourself to feel satisfied with the work you’ve put into your health.

 

What Research Says About Mindfulness in Sport

While a lot of research has been dedicated to the general health benefits of mindfulness, fewer studies have focused on the benefits of mindfulness during exercise.

A study by Ulmer, Stetson & Salmon (2010) looked at the use of mindfulness in exercise to promote exercise initiation and maintenance. They found that individuals who maintained a program of exercise for longer tended to score higher on measures for mindfulness and acceptance.

Mindful Running
Photo by Gervyn Louis from Unsplash

Roberts and Danoff-burg (2015) studied university students and the relationship between mindfulness, health activities and stress. They found that students who deliberately immerse themselves in physical activity were more likely to want to exercise again. They also found that mindfulness contributed to decreased stress levels, which resulted in increased positive perceptions about overall health and participation in health behaviors.

The above research has been criticized for focusing on participating in exercise rather than the satisfaction derived from the exercise itself. This is an important distinction to make as those who find exercise satisfying are more likely to exercise, whether they participate in mindfulness or not.

Another study by researchers at Utrecht University in the Netherlands focused more on how mindfulness impacted participants perception of how satisfying exercise was, rather than their ongoing interest in exercise.

They found that participants who reported being the most satisfied with their exercise habits were also the ones who exercised the most. But they also found that participants who reported practicing mindfulness during exercise generally felt more satisfied with their exercise regime (Tsafou, De Ridder, van Ee & Lacroix, 2016).

Overall the research does support the idea that mindfulness in exercise and sport plays a positive contribution, whether it’s your perception of your feelings of general health or the satisfaction you take from exercise.

 

How to Use Mindfulness for Weight Loss

As we’ve taken a brief look at already, research backs the idea that mindfulness is successful in helping individuals maintain or achieve weight loss (Dalen et al., 2010, Timmerman & Brown, 2012, and Beshara, Hutchinson & Wilson, 2013).

Mindful Eating Goals
Photo by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay

Longitudinal research has also found mindfulness to be successful in helping participants significantly reduce their Body Mass Index (BMI) compared to a control group (Tapper et al, 2009). In this study, participants were asked to attend four, two-hour workshops helping them understand and use mindfulness techniques to improve their health and well-being. Data about their BMI, physical activity and mental health was then collected at baseline (before attendance at the workshops), four months and six months.

The workshops used by the researchers were in-depth and encouraged participants to explore the emotional and physical purpose of their weight loss journey.

The guiding principles of mindful eating apply when approaching mindfulness for weight loss, but I’ve also reviewed the overall content of the workshops used in the above study and developed the following summary:

  • Identify your own personal values and whether weight loss supports those values. Is your desire for weight loss personally driven or socially driven?
  • Start to acknowledge your thoughts relating to food as just that – thoughts. They do not necessarily need to be believed or acted upon.
  • Accept that attempting to control feelings and physical sensations relating to hunger will not always be successful.
  • Learn to embrace internal discomfort around your weight loss journey, rather than avoid it.
  • Develop a sense of self that allows non-attachment to negative thoughts and feelings around your weight loss journey. Acknowledge the thoughts, but don’t allow them to dictate how you respond physically.
  • Focus on the importance of your own personal values and attach your weight loss goals to these values.

 

How Mindfulness Can Help You Quit Smoking

Mindfulness is also showing promising results in addiction recovery. When used alongside other psychologically proven addiction recovery methods, mindfulness has been shown to thicken the mid-prefrontal cortex and mid-insular region of the brain, promoting a greater sense of well-being and aiding in overcoming cravings (Lazar et al., 2005).

Addictive habits are often adopted in order to avoid difficult feelings or situations. Mindfulness helps to counter this by promoting a deliberate focus on the same difficult feelings in order to confront and overcome them safely. Where addiction can be seen as avoidant behavior, mindfulness promotes a greater sense of taking responsibility for how we feel and respond to different situations.

Research by Brewer et al (2012) specifically looked at the use of mindfulness with participants who were attempting to quit smoking. Participants in the study were assigned to training with either mindfulness or a standard program for quitting smoking. At the end of the study, the mindfulness group had a greater reduction in smoking. The results had a lasting impact too, with 31% of the mindfulness group smoke-free four months after treatment finished compared to only 6% of the standard program group.

When using mindfulness to quit smoking, Dr Brewer recommends following the RAIN acronym:

  • Recognize – Recognize that a strong emotion or craving is present and instead of turning to smoking to avoid it, acknowledge what you’re feeling openly and without judgement.
  • Accept – Accept that this is how you’re feeling, without assigning it a positive or negative label. It is what it is.
  • Investigate – Investigate why the craving has arisen. What is happening in your surroundings? How is your body responding? How are your emotions responding? Take the time to be present in everything you’re experiencing.
  • Non-identification – Acknowledge that the craving is a physical reaction, it is not you and you do not need to act on it. You can feel the physical sensations until they subside without giving into them.

 

Mindfulness with Chocolate: Guided Meditation

Mindfulness with Chocolate
Photo by Luisa Schetinger from Unsplash

At first glance, mindfulness with chocolate might sound like a self-indulgent activity. Remembering that mindfulness has a fundamental purpose to encourage compassion for the self at its core, the idea of using chocolate in this way can become an enjoyable and valuable practice (Penman, 2011).

Mindspace has created a number of resources that can be used within schools to encourage the practice of mindfulness, and their resource for guided meditation with chocolate is a great starting point.

Below I’ve summarized their guide:

  • First, select a small piece or bar of chocolate. This can be chocolate you’re familiar with or one you haven’t tried before. Remember to approach the activity with openness and curiosity. Sit comfortably.
  • Consider the wrapping on your chocolate. Does it make a sound when you hold it in your hand? What color is it? What is written on the wrapper?
  • Slowly unwrap the chocolate. Pay attention to how your body begins to respond to the anticipation of eating. What physical sensations arise? How are you reacting emotionally?
  • Resist the urge to eat the chocolate. Instead, examine it in its completeness. What colors can you see? How does it feel in your hand? How does it smell?
  • Next, take a bite, but do not eat it just yet. Close your eyes and turn your focus to the full sensation of the chocolate on your tongue. How does it feel as it melts? How is your body responding, not just inside your mouth?
  • Begin to slowly move the chocolate around in your mouth. Start to notice how it tastes. How does the consistency feel? How has this changed from when you first placed it on your tongue? What emotions are you feeling?
  • Once you have considered this, swallow the chocolate, paying attention to the sensation as it moves down your throat. Is there a lingering taste on your tongue? How are your emotions reacting to this?
  • Open your eyes. Take a moment to reflect on how you feel physically and emotionally.

 

As mentioned, it might sound self-indulgent, but taking this time to really enjoy this experience can help with the ways we think about different foods. If you’ve constantly been taught to think of chocolate as ‘naughty’, you may have started indulging in eating it in secret.

This process can help correct some faulty thinking about how we’ve been taught to feel about food and reinstate our enjoyment of it.

 

A Take Home Message

I hope this has helped you to build more knowledge around how to apply mindfulness in new areas of your life, especially when it comes to boosting your feelings of well-being through eating and exercise.

If there’s one thing I’d love you take away from this piece, it’s that there are no wrong or right ways when it comes to using mindfulness. The core of mindfulness is compassion for the self, so if you try out some of the techniques or ideas above and it doesn’t go ‘right’ the first time, don’t let that hold you back. Let go of judgement, negative connections and remember, we are all human.

Feel free to refer back to this article anytime you need a refresher and do leave any comments on how you may have started using mindfulness in these ways, I’d love to hear about your own journeys!

Thanks for reading.

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About the Author

Elaine Mead is a passionate educator, writer and learner. Since completing her degree in psychology, she has been fascinated by the different ways we learn - both socially and academically - and the ways in which we utilise our experiences to become more authentic versions of our selves. She is currently completing her diploma in Cognitive Behavioural Coaching & Mentoring. Find her on twitter sharing more words and things she finds on the internet: @_elainemead

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