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What to Think About During Exercise

A reader wrote to me and said he gets bored during running, which makes him want to just stop running.

And so he asked for suggestions for what to think about while running or exercising in general.

Such a great question: if you’re bored, why would you want to do it? Why not read fun stuff on the Internet instead?

Well, other than the fantastic health benefits, exercise is a wonderful time to think, to practice mindfulness, to socialize, to escape distraction.

A little background about my qualifications: when I started running in 2005, I could barely run 5 minutes and was mostly sedentary until then. I slowly worked my way up to a 5K race, then decided (not quite wisely) to set my sights on a marathon. After a year, I ran my first marathon (after a couple of half marathons and numerous other races). I ran a couple marathons after that, a bunch of other races, including some short triathlons. Last year, I ran a 50-mile ultramarathon. Though all of that, I’ve spent countless hours running.

I’ve also spent a lot of hours strength training, doing Crossfit-style workouts, or other fun stuff.

I’ve spent a lot of time exercising. And I love it.

I don’t train with music. For me, it’s distracting and a waste of good thinking time.

I’ve listened to audiobooks on long (3+ hour) runs, but usually work out in silence.

Except when I’m training with a friend. Last year I did a lot of the longer runs with my friend Scott, and for about a year I’ve been training in the gym with my friend Tynan (when he’s in town — he travels like a gypsy). I’ve also worked out a lot with my wife Eva, and with my sister Kat when I was on Guam.

I love working out with a friend. It’s such a great way to enjoy exercise: have great conversations with someone you enjoy spending time with. Build a friendship while building fitness. So if I can ever find a workout partner, that’s my first choice.

I also love working out and running alone.

Here’s what I think about:

  • Ideas: My best source of blog post ideas comes from when I run or work out. The movement seems to stimulate blood flow to the brain, and getting away from the distractions of technology allows me to reflect and think in isolation. I often have a bunch of great blog post ideas on a run. (Protip: Carry something to record ideas on, whether a notebook or smartphone. I’ve lost good ideas because I have nothing to write on. I came up with a method for remembering — I tie each idea to an image, so when I get home, I have a series of images in my head, like rubber duck, pencil, bell, apple. Then I just decipher these images into the ideas I wanted to remember.)
  • Some problem that’s been bothering me: If something has been spinning around in my head, that’s a good sign that I should give it some conscious thought. Why is it bothering me so much? Usually it’s because I’m holding onto an expectation/ideal I can’t control, including how I want people to think of me. Then I practice letting that go.
  • Body mindfulness: Exercise is great time to practice mindfulness. I like to stay present (when I remember) with my body, feeling each bodypart in turn (feet, lower legs, upper legs, buttocks, lower back, abdomen, etc.). Then I try to expand my awareness to include all of them at once.
  • Mindfulness of thoughts: Other times I practice being an observer of my mind. It’s a fascinating phenomenon, your thoughts. Practicing watching my thoughts creates a space between thought and reaction.
  • A project I’m working on: If I’ve been working hard on a project, I will give it some headspace during exercise, to allow myself to get some perspective on the project, see what’s important, work out some difficult problem with it that I’ve been putting off.
  • Problems of people I love: If my kids or wife or close friend are having a problem, I’ll give some thought to that, and see if there’s a way I can help. I will try to feel empathy, to understand what they might be going through, and to see what would be helpful given their state of mind.
  • Reflecting on things I’ve been learning: Often I’m conducting some kind of experiment in my life, and exercise is a great time to think about how that’s been going, what problems have come up, and what I’ve learned so far. These reflections often end up as blog posts.
  • The nature around me, and the road below me: I love getting outside and immersing myself in the beauty of nature. It’s easy to miss it if you’re stuck in your head, or listening to music/audiobooks. I love running on trails, or running through a city filled with blooming blossoms, or exploring a new place with a run, or doing a workout in a park. I love running in the rain, or when the sun is falling on me like warm liquid, or feeling the chill of the early morning and thinking I’m a badass.
  • The barbell: Lifting weights is hard, especially if you’re doing heavy deadlifts or squats. It’s easy to get lost in your thoughts when you work out, but that’s a good way to injure yourself with weights. So I try to be present with the barbell, watching my form and putting myself completely into lifting this heavy thing against the earth’s relentless pull.
  • The nature of reality: This seems lofty and abstract, but sometimes I ponder the ego and whether it’s an illusion, whether we’re separate or all part of one ocean of existence, why we suffer and whether death is even something to fear. That’s usually when I trip and sprain an ankle.
  • How lucky I am: Best of all, I think about the good things I have in my life, from family and friends to dear readers like all of you, from food and shelter to work I truly love, from Tolstoy, Fitzgerald and Cervantes to a body that allows me to move through a world so incredibly amazing I can’t believe how lucky I am to be alive.

Zen Habits

Leo Babuata
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