It’s no secret that mindfulness meditation—the practice of moment-by-moment awareness—can do amazing things for your mental and physical health. It’s been integrated into the workplace and the dinner table, and you may have already experienced how Fitbit’s Relax feature can have a positive impact on your stress levels. But can mindfulness actually improve your game on the court, in the gym, or on the mat? A new study shows taking mindfulness seriously can actually take your game to a whole new level.
According to researchers at the University of Miami, student athletes who received mindfulness training to cope with the stress-filled, pre-season experienced more stable attention and fewer attentional lapses. And while athletes who received relaxation training saw benefits as well, the ones who practiced mindfulness were the ones to receive added protection around their ability to sustain attention.
Athletes Who Practice Mindfulness Have Better Mental Focus
“The study found that select measures of attentional focus and mental health decreased across the pre-season training program of football players,” explains Ryan Rhodes, PhD, Fitbit Advisory Panel exercise expert and professor of behavioral medicine at the University of Victoria. “The amount of participation in both programs had some positive relationship with mental health outcomes. However, the mindfulness training participation was associated with better outcomes in attentional focus ”
For the study, researchers monitored the emotional well-being and attention of UM football players over the academically and physically-demanding four-weeks of pre-season training. Fifty-six players received mindfulness training (breathing exercises, body scans, and mindful awareness), while 44 players received relaxation training through exercises including place-guided imagery and soothing music. The researchers used a test called the Sustained Attention to Response Task (SART) to measure attention and a questionnaire to gauge emotional well-being. While all the players took a hit on their attention and well-being as the four weeks wore on, only high adherence to the mindfulness training protected athletes’ sustained attention.
Mindfulness Can Help Athletes Deal with Physical Stress
“Mindfulness/meditation can help during physically demanding situations by helping us to remain calm in the moment,” says San Francisco-based psychologist Juli Fraga. “During times of stress, the body propels into the fight or flight response, which can affect one’s ability to think clearly. However, meditation, when practiced regularly, can help us stay anchored in the moment, which has been shown to help with stress management.”
The effects of mindfulness aren’t just psychological and emotional; previous research has found that mindfulness training can actually alter brain activity to help keep athletes adapt to stressful situations. Researchers also believe the practice can aid in awareness and recovery; two critical elements of superior athleticism. “Mindfulness and meditation have been shown to bring the body into greater parasympathetic tone (rest and digest division of our nervous system is enhanced),” says Rhodes. “When our bodies spend more time in this rest and digest state, our ability to recover improves, and with increased recovery comes the potential for increased performance.”
Even if you’re not a college athlete or Olympic hopeful, you can start reaping the benefits of mindfulness in your everyday life and activities. “Regular mindfulness and meditation practices help to focus the mind and sustain attention,” says Rhodes. That means training your mind can keep you on task, whether you’re at the office or out on the field. Not sure where to start? Why not start with tuning into your breath.
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.