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Pay Attention: How to enjoy every minute of exercise

Do you hate those first few minutes of a jog? Do you dread the starting few poses of yoga? Does it take a while to get into your exercise class? Sports psychology practices could help.

Do you hate those first few minutes of a jog? Do you dread the starting few poses of yoga? Does it take a while to get into your exercise class?

I was talking to a colleague recently who loves skiing in the Alps. But as you might guess, that's impossible for him to do 3-4 times a week; so instead, he runs for 45 minutes every day. However, he told me he hates the first 20 minutes of his exercise regimen. I was shocked - that's almost half his run that he wasn't enjoying.

Is there a way to change this? Yes. I believe sports psychology practices could help.

I first asked him a few questions:

1. Did he enjoy running? Yes, just not the first 20 minutes.

2. Did he start slowly so his breathing and body had time to adjust to exercise? Yes, he walked for 5 or so minutes first, and then jogged slowly as he worked up to his running pace.

3. Had he figured out a good time for him to exercise, so he wasn't too tired or too hungry? Yes, he liked exercising first thing in the morning, and had a light snack before heading out.

So what could he do to enjoy more of his daily run? I suggested he either focus in or focus out, using mindfulness to focus his mind.

Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally. How could this help?

Focus inward

The first way is focusing in on your run or exercise. You can choose to pay attention to any aspect of your run - counting something, paying attention to your body, or something that feels good. Some examples: Count how many steps you take to go once around a lap. Notice if your right footsteps feel the same as your left ones. Can you feel any pebbles through your sneakers? Notice your posture. Do your arms swinging feel free and easy? Does the sun on your face feel great?

When your thoughts wander to how unpleasant the run is, train yourself over and over to re-focus onto something else - whatever you've decided to pay attention to.

Mindfulness also means to focus nonjudgementally. You can notice what's unpleasant, but with an attitude of curiosity and willingness to tolerate what you observe. Does your right or left leg hurt more? Is it shortness of breath or muscle fatigue that is making you slow down? Another great trick is to notice what's unpleasant, but to keep a careful lookout for the very first sign that your run is getting easier. Look for the first sign that your breathing is easing.

Focus outward

An alternate suggestion is to focus outwards from your run. If your body feels unpleasant initially, focus on something else. For example, if you run outside, focus on nature. Notice the brightness of the sun. Notice the temperature on your face, legs and fingers. Listen for birds chirping or water flowing in a stream. Being in nature can be enjoyable and refreshing, and it naturally causes a relaxation response. Concentrate on those feelings.

Use distraction. In the gym, watch a favorite TV show, so you enjoy that instead of paying attention to being out of breath. Listen to music. Upbeat music has been shown to enable people to exercise longer, at a higher intensity, and enjoy it more. Lastly, run with a friend and chat. Enjoy the conversation and it can distract you from discomfort in your body.

So focus in on your run, perhaps even looking for enjoyable physical sensations. Or, use distraction to focus out, on nature, music or TV, or someone's company. You can try one of these techniques each time you exercise to see what works best for you.

What other suggestions do you have to make the start of your exercise as good as when it's over?

Dr. Sarah Whitman practices sports psychiatry in Philadelphia. She is a guest contributor on Sports Doc.

Read more Sports Doc for Sports Medicine and Fitness.