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Using Mindfulness to Motivate

[Read Time: Estimated 8 mins] 

Pain is a great demotivator. Pain felt while exercising can be enough to stop even the most seasoned of athletes. So, where does that leave the rest of us?

At one time or another, we have all tried to commit to exercising more, but experiencing discomfort while trying to exercise can be incredibly discouraging. No question about it, exercise can hurt!

But then what do we always hear next…  “No PAIN, no GAIN!”, right? It is embarrassing to stop. It’s discouraging to go out and quit, so why go out at all? 

First, we need to understand that the word “pain” used regarding exercise can have two meanings. Pain that is felt as sharp, strong, and persistent is our body telling us specifically that we are injured. The Cleveland Clinic urges us to listen to this type of pain and stop the movement. 

But what about the other pain, then? The discomfort, the aching, the soreness however mild. How do we deal with that? 

Before moving to Charleston, I used to go on morning walks with my Mom back in Pennsylvania (where there are a lot of hills!), and at times she would struggle with the discomfort of the exercise. Often, she would remark that she felt as though her feet and ankles were on fire, or that she did not have the confidence in her breath to climb to the top of a hill. Looking at her, I noticed that she was walking hunched over, eyes cast down at her feet on the pavement of the road. 

My first reaction was telling her to look up. I explained that half the fun of walking is being able to look at what is around you. Growing up at the Kilpatrick’s, we were always gardening and cultivating an appreciation for flowers, trees, leaves, etc. So, I encouraged my mother to notice what was around us on our walk. Had she ever seen such thick, white fog down in our neighbor’s valley from the vantage on this hill before? Could she see how the dew stuck to the bark of the river birches lining the pond? Could she find her breath to the scent of the Dogwood trees blooming with white flowers? I suggested she listen to the goldfinches sing a welcoming to the new day, they were welcoming us, too. I was inviting her to use mindfulness in order to tolerate her reported discomfort so she could accomplish her goal of completing the walk. 

So often, pain is an exigent agent of what therapists’ call “grounding”. For example, nothing brings our complete attention to the body faster than a stubbed toe on a coffee table. Pain is one of our body’s strongest signals. And it should be! Pain is our protector; it tells us when something is wrong right now. But when it comes to exercising, where our fundamental goal lies beyond the point where physical discomfort tells us to stop, how do we ignore the pain? 

Simple answer: we don’t. We tolerate pain by appreciating its place in the context of the whole picture of the moment. My mom was focused solely on the burning felt in her legs and lungs, and consequently each step required a forced intention. This is unsustainable over time, and she probably would have quit early. Asking her to have gratitude for the sights, tastes, sounds, smells of her walking experience added much needed color to her black-and-white focus. When her picture of the walk balanced, she felt motivated and empowered to work with the pain and finish strong!

“Mindfulness” is intentional appreciation of our complete surroundings in any present moment. It has the power to motivate us past the point of physical discomfort. By intentionally transitioning focus from only the discomfort she felt to appreciating the beauty all around her, my mother experienced genuine interest in the value of pushing past the pain. Smelling the dogwoods or seeing how the light of the sunrise caught the leaves created enticing rewards for her to move despite her discomfort. Now she had reason to walk. 

In addition, my mother felt her self-confidence build over time. As she consistently practiced mindfulness, her new ability to motivate herself past the limits of her body made her feel enriched spiritually. That is something to be proud of. After our talk, her desire to walk and appreciate grew each subsequent morning. While using mindfulness, exercise went from being an uncomfortable burden to just a by-product of her gratitude experience. We walked all summer long. 


At Synergy, our therapists can work with you to find motivation in many complex situations. We believe motivation does not have to be so arduous. How can adding a bit of gratitude and appreciation help you in your life right now?

Written By Spencer Kilpatrick, LISW-CP

Posted Thursday, April 16, 2020

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