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Set a workout intention

“When I meet people for their first lesson, they’re rushing around, feeling excited or possibly nervous about getting in the water,” she says. “Taking that moment to get centered helps ground them so they can be present.” It also helps them master the skill and truly enjoy the experience.

Intention-setting is common pre-yoga, but there’s no reason to stop there. Experts say starting any workout this way can lead to huge benefits. “Intentions are like directions for the mind and body,” says Michael DeMaria, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and author of Peace Within. “When you consciously tell yourself where you’re going, you’ll have a more successful workout.”

That’s true both mentally and physically. “We’ve all seen the athlete who has all the physical gifts but doesn’t have it up top,” adds Brandon Marcello, Ph.D., Sarasota, Florida-based sports performance expert and member of the Equinox Health Advisory Board. “Setting an intention can actually dislodge the negative thoughts that can prevent you from progressing.”

Another element that sabotages your workout: distractions. Getting caught up in what you’ll make for dinner or a challenging situation at work can lead to a half-assed session. In just a few seconds, setting an intention (and returning to it when distractions creep in) makes you more present, mindful, and in tune with your body. Give your brain something to focus on, and your performance will improve.

The benefits transcend your one-hour Pilates class, strength-training session, or run. “You’re training your mind to focus and accomplish,” DeMaria says. “This increases your sense of success, which increases your enjoyment, creating a positive snowball effect that spills into the rest of your life.” A pre-workout intention is like a mini meditation, strengthening the mindfulness muscle for less stress and more happiness.

Here’s exactly how you can get lasting benefits from this seconds-long practice.

Focus on experience, not numbers.

“Your intention has to be realistic,” Marcello says. Saying you want to bench press 700 pounds will only set you up for disappointment. “Instead, let your intention align with who you are and, more broadly, what you want.” Maybe you’d like to breathe through tough moments, enjoy the sensations of moving and getting your heart rate up, or learn something about yourself and your body during your upcoming workout.

“That kind of intention keeps you focused on the here and now—not some imagined goal in the future,” DeMaria notes. “That’s the subtle distinction between an intention and a goal.”

Get it down to a sentence.

Turn your intention into a mantra that you can silently repeat when the workout gets tough. DeMaria recommends using present rather than future tense. For example, you might state “I’m enjoying the challenges of today’s workout,” or “I’m healthy, whole, and becoming stronger.” It’s another trick to anchor your mind in the now.

Plant some clues.

Tie the mantra to a physical reminder, like taking a sip of water, so you’ll remember to repeat it during your session. 

Finish with a release.

Yoga class often ends with reflection or group ohm. Sealing your practice in this way helps you acknowledge what you’ve done and carry the intention into the rest of your day.

DeMaria suggests lifting your open palms overhead, then dropping them with an audible or silent ahhh. “It looks like a stretch to other people, but as you do it you come back to your heart center one last time.” Honor the fact that whether you hit a PR or not, you just finished your workout—and now you’re better equipped to achieve whatever comes next.