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Columns: Enhancing Your Behavioral Toolkit

Be Here Now: Mindful Eating and Exercise

Buckworth, Janet Ph.D., FACSM

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ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal: 7/8 2019 - Volume 23 - Issue 4 - p 38-39
doi: 10.1249/FIT.0000000000000485
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Have you ever looked at your plate during a meal and realized you do not remember eating as much as you did? Did you even lose count of how many repetitions you did when lifting weights? These are just two examples of mindless eating and mindless exercise. Lack of attention to what and how much we eat can contribute to an imbalance in energy intake and expenditure and play a role in how successful your clients are in managing their weight. Distracted exercising can contribute to overuse or injury. Mindful eating and exercise can lead to healthier choices that are in tune with physical and psychological needs.

Self-monitoring is a tool we use to help someone identify realistic goals and provide information about how they spend their time (1). Self-monitoring increases awareness of and attention to barriers and supports for tracked behaviors. A client could discover that she skips yoga on the weekend when she oversleeps, or overeats when she has lunch with work colleagues. Self-monitoring also can be used to sharpen someone’s focus on the process of eating and exercising in the context of their physical and emotional cues. By focusing on eating, a client can discover habits that contribute to mindless eating, such as choosing a portion size regardless of hunger, eating while attending to an electronic device, and eating quickly. By focusing on physical activity, a client can discover that she walks less than she thought, does not do anything to get her heart rate up, or pushes herself too hard when she is pressed for time. Self-monitoring helps clients shift focus to behaviors that are usually mindless to more mindful attention.

Mindfulness involves being in the moment and engaging in nonjudgmental observation. Mindfulness is a quality of consciousness characterized by clarity and vividness of current experiences and functioning. Observant, open awareness, and attention encompassing mindfulness have been associated with well-being and self-regulation.

Mindfulness involves being in the moment and engaging in nonjudgmental observation. Mindfulness is a quality of consciousness characterized by clarity and vividness of current experiences and functioning. Observant, open awareness, and attention encompassing mindfulness have been associated with well-being and self-regulation. Self-regulation of lifestyle behaviors is an important tool for clients adopting and maintaining healthy behaviors. Mindfulness can thus inform behavioral regulation and disengagement from unhealthy habitual or automatic thoughts, habits, and behavior patterns. Interventions to enhance mindfulness have been implemented in a variety of medical, social, educational, intercultural, and worksite settings to improve physical and psychological well-being (2). Mindful eating has proven effective in promoting weight management by aligning meals and snacks with hunger and fullness and by increasing regulations of portions. Mindfulness applied to exercise has psychological benefits through the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system and the promotion of sympathetic balance. Mindful exercise, thus, can have beneficial mental health effects, such as improved self-efficacy and stress reduction.


Mindful Eating Strategies:

  • Chew each bite thoroughly.
  • Slow down while eating.
  • Put down your fork between bites.
  • Take time to really enjoy and savor the smells, tastes, and textures of your food.
  • Eat at a table without reading or using electronics.
  • Practice being thankful for your food.
  • Name the flavors of the food you are eating to help focus attention.
  • Practice being thankful for your food before a meal or snack.

Mindful exercise strategies:

  • Give yourself time to warm-up and mentally prepare yourself for the reason for the workout session (e.g., run at least 2 miles, complete upper body strength training, try a new walking route).
  • Attend to the rhythm and depth of your breathing.
  • Center your attention on your core.
  • Focus on your form and the correct technique and movements.
  • Practice being thankful you are taking time for yourself.
  • Focus on your movement and place in your immediate physical and social environment.
  • Give yourself time to cool down and extend the mindful practice to stretching and breathing.

Earlier work in exercise psychology addressed the differences between associative and dissociative strategies on exercise performance and mood (3). Mindful exercise would encompass internal association, in which the focus is on cues related to the body, but with mindfulness, thought processes are treated as transient and focus is gently shifted to nonjudgmental attention to the moment and physical experience. Mindfulness also can be applied to external association through focused attention on the environment, such as the temperature and terrain, which also can aid in pacing and tailoring effort. Mindlessness during exercise would be characterized by a focus on thoughts unrelated to the experience, such as planning what to cook for supper, worrying about a big project due the next day (i.e., internal dissociation), or shifting focus to primarily environmental stimuli.

Mindful eating is a self-regulation technique that allows someone to monitor their eating habits in a way to control portion size, make healthier food choices, and truly appreciate and enjoy the food that nourishes their bodies. Attending to how we choose what to eat, exploring why we eat what we eat, and being sensitive to how much to eat can help with weight management. Various specific strategies are available to promote mindful eating.

If you have a client who seems to be easily distracted during a workout session, consider introducing some physical activities that are mindful in themselves, such as yoga, Pilates, and tai chi, as well as some martial arts (4). Help them practice drawing their attention to the rhythm of their breathing and away from busy thoughts. There is also some evidence that people who are more mindful are more likely to maintain exercise (5). Researchers discovered better adherence despite a Wisconsin winter in participants who had participated in an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program (6). Ruffault et al. (7) found that increased mindfulness was associated with intrinsic motivation for exercise, speculating that mindfulness training could support exercise adherence by strengthening intrinsic motivation.

There is ample evidence that training in mindfulness helps improve mood, helps reduce stress, and may have beneficial effects on physical illness. Attending to physical, psychological, and social cues that drive how much your client eats can be an important step in eating in response to physical hunger and stopping when full, and not when the plate is empty. Mindful exercise can increase enjoyment and foster adherence. Getting clients involved in mindfulness training can be an important step in enabling them to translate a mindful practice to diet and exercise and reap the benefits.


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7. Ruffault A, Carette C, Lurbe I Puerto K, et al. Randomized controlled trial of a 12-month computerized mindfulness-based intervention for obese patients with binge eating disorder: the MindOb study protocol. Contemp Clin Trials. 2016;49:126–33.
Copyright © 2019 by American College of Sports Medicine.