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What is 'conscious movement'? And why do some fitness experts swear by it?

It's not just for yoga, tai chi and Pilates, experts champion mindfulness as an important part of any healthy fitness routine.
A woman working out
The most immediate physical payoff of conscious movement lies in its ability to help you lessen the risks of injury from a tough workout.Cecilie_Arcurs / Getty Images

Unless we’re doing an exercise that is built around slow breathing and deep focus such as yoga or Pilates, the practice of mindfulness probably isn’t at the top of our list when we hit the gym.

But it should be. Fitness instructors and physical therapists champion mindfulness, aka, “conscious movement” as a key part out of any workout regimen.

So what is conscious movement exactly and how to do do it? Here’s what we learned.

Conscious movement isn’t new — but it’s gaining interest as our workouts intensify

First, it should be recognized that conscious movement may be a trending term, but it’s not a new concept. Tai Chi instructor John Turnbull notes the ancient practice of tai chi hinges on this style of slow, intentional and careful movement that highlights the mind-body connection.

“Mindful exercise is a key component of the training we do,” Turnbull says. “The first step is awareness of how one is standing and moving. Being conscious of how the whole body works together and using the minimum effort to move helps the way we move in all areas of life, including using proper structure, [preventing] injury, and [achieving] a calmer mind. Any physical activity can be done slowly and mindfully, however having someone watch one’s posture is important, especially at first.”

Conscious movement may not be new (and it can be implemented in just about any physical activity), but it’s seeing a surge of attention from fitness enthusiasts, in tandem with climbing interest in in CrossFit and HIIT.

“Where CrossFit and HIIT are about completing a lot of exercises in a short time with little or no regard to form, conscious movement is at the opposite end of the spectrum,” says Cary Raffle, a certified personal trainer and and orthopedic exercise specialist.

Lessen risk of injury and tune in with your body’s needs right now

The most immediate physical payoff of conscious movement lies in its ability to help you lessen the risks of injury from a tough workout.

“CrossFit and HIIT often lead to injury; conscious exercise [helps you] avoid injury,” says Raffle. “Most people should start a new exercise program with conscious movement before progressing to higher intensity versions of the exercises. This can reduce the risk of injury and lead to better results.”

Claire Grieve, a yoga specialist and stretch therapist notes that in addition to injury avoidance, conscious movement is also helpful for helping you tune into what you need during a given day.

“One day you may crave a really intense high impact workout, another day you might be coming out of a stressful week and instead need to relax, breathe and restore,” Grieve says. “On another you might have an injury, being conscious about your movement will help you know to adjust your workout to give your body space to heal. Really it's about developing the skills to let go, breath and listen to what your body really needs.”

Great for after work — and before a tough workout

Raffle recommends beginning your workouts — whatever they may be — with some conscious movement warmups, especially if you’ve been working at a desk or driving all day.

“When you sit for long periods of time your body gets locked into that seated head forward position,” Raffle says. “Conscious movements help to activate muscles that are overstretched and slack and to stretch those that are tight, restoring proper movement patterns before beginning more intensive exercises. Conscious movement can actually help both get more out of their exercises because the objective is to work the right muscles not simply to move the weights or your body from point A to point B.”

Conscious movement exercises: The basics

Conscious movement not only means enhancing your awareness of how you’re moving, as the name implies; it also means slowing down.

Dr. David R. Sol, a doctor of acupuncture, a licensed massage therapist and dean of undergraduate studies at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in Chicago, cites the following criteria for conscious movement:

  • Taking slow, deep breaths to induce the parasympathetic nervous system and slow your heart rate.
  • Be present in your thoughts: “Various studies have shown mindfulness practice through Tai Chi, yoga, Qi Gong, meditation, [etc.] reduce stress, anxiety, decrease pain and increase feelings of happiness and relaxation,” says Sol.

You can add these core elements to any exercise that allows for it, but you might want to consider some yoga poses.

“Yoga allows you to connect to your breath and to slow down and really listen to your body,” says Grieve. “I particularly like to practice restorative yoga as it serves as the perfect balance to the societal pressure to keep pushing harder and harder.”

Carlisle Price, a personal trainer at Gold’s Gym, suggests the following techniques you can use with weights:

  • 20-30 second squats with little to no weight — 15 seconds down, 15 seconds up. (You’ll want to drastically slow the tempo)
  • Taking static holds at the apex of a movement. “Holding a barbell over head or a pike position to develop stability for overhead pressing.”

Mindfulness can help you zone in on building muscle where you want it

You should also use mindfulness when you’re working out a group of muscles that may be a problem area for you, like the abs or glutes.

"Movement should always be performed with a conscious mind-body connection, placing the focus on the muscles you're working regardless of the pace,” says Eve Dawes is a NASM and REPS certified trainer and founder of Fitness by Eve. “This helps not only with technique but getting the most of out the exercise. Neurological evidence shows that our brains play a major role in regulating muscle movement and strength, so if you focus on contracting the muscle(s) you’re wanting to work your brain can send stronger signals, creating more muscle engagement, and helping them to work more efficiently, which also leads to better form, which equals better results and fewer injuries."

At your desk all day? Conscious movement to the rescue

Since conscious movement can be incorporated into most any physical activity, it’s a great technique to practice when you’re doing house chores or how you move at your desk.

“Many times, being mindful and conscious of changing small behaviors can yield big results,” says Cindy Neville, a certified women's health clinical specialist (WCS), physical therapist and national director of Pelvic Health & Wellness at FYZICAL Therapy and Balance Centers. “Bottom line, our bodies are not designed to be still for extended periods of time — they're meant to move. Set an alarm on your phone as a reminder to get up and move. Walk, vacuum or go a park and have some fun on the swings. While walking, bending or lifting, be aware of your core and engage it — paying more attention to how you move will make you feel better, helps reduce pain in the lower back and inflammation in joints.”

This is not a weight loss technique, but it certainly helps the journey

Conscious movement isn’t specifically designed for weight loss, but it is an effective tool to complement more a intensive fitness regimen.

Sarah Snyder, a 36-year-old publicist at Wasabi Publicity, recently added conscious movement into her intense workout plan.

“In 2013 I was ranked among the top 10 strongest women in the U.S., but lost my way and gained over 130 pounds and let myself go,” Snyder says. “I'm currently on a health and wellness journey back to fitness, which includes Strongwoman Training, HITT Training and also conscious movement. For me, conscious movement includes walking and practicing yoga. I'm finding that the focus on my breathing and flexibility is greatly enhancing my Strongwoman movements. This has made the biggest difference in my journey. I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for this mindset work. It's not easy for me, but when you see the payout it makes it worth the extra effort. It also reminds me to be thankful for where I am at, each and every moment.”


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