Doing These Two Simple Activities Together Can Reduce Depression by 40% in Two Months

Doing These Two Simple Activities Together Can Reduce Depression by 40 in Two Months

The connection between our minds and our bodies is profound. Increasingly, it is becoming clear that the way to strong mental health involves bringing our physical selves on board. Recent research has made this strikingly clear, showing how the symptoms of depression can be reduced by 40% with an easy mind/body activity combination.

There is no doubt that depression affects the body as well as the mind. It makes sense then, that any meaningful response to depression would best involve both the mind and the body. Research published in the journal Translational Psychiatry found that when meditation and aerobic exercise were done together twice a week for eight weeks, the symptoms of depression reduced by 40%. 

The study involved 52 people – 22 had depression and 30 had no symptoms at all. All participants showed stronger mental health and a happier outlook at the end of the study. What this means is that we can all benefit from this, not just those who are struggling with depression. 

Dealing with depression. Let’s talk about the research. 

Participants took part in two one-hour sessions a week. Each session involved 30 minutes of meditation followed by 30 minutes of aerobic exercise.  

The meditation part. What did they do there?

Meditation (which mindfulness is a type of) involves being fully present in the moment and letting thoughts and feelings come and go. The study involved 20 minutes of focused attention meditation (keep reading for the how-to) and 10 minutes of slow-walking meditation.

Participants were asked to sit with their legs crossed, or in any way that was upright and comfortable. They were then asked to shift their full focus to the breath. We know minds love to wander, so participants were told to count each breath as a way to keep their attention on their breath. If their thoughts drifted to the past or the future, they were told to gently acknowledge this and shift their attention back to their breathing. 

When participants moved into the slow walking part of the meditation, they were asked to focus on their feet as they moved from one foot to the other in a slow walk.

And the exercise?

The exercise part of the study involved a five-minute warm-up, then thirty minutes on a treadmill or exercise bike, followed by a five-minute cool down.

What did they find?

After only eight weeks of the meditation and exercise training, there was a 40% drop in depressive symptoms. 

‘Scientists have known for a while that both of these activities alone can help with depression … But this study suggests that when done together, there is a striking improvement in depressive symptoms along with increases in synchronized brain activity.’ – Tracey Shors, professor, Department of Psychology and Center for Collaborative Neuroscience.

All participants (even the ones who didn’t have depression) reported that after the study, they spent less time worrying about things than they did before the study. Those who had depression showed a marked decline in ruminative thinking which typically involves thinking over and over about negative memories or recalling things from their past through a more negative filter. 

‘We are excited by the findings because we saw such a meaningful improvement in both clinically depressed and non-depressed [participants] … It is the first time that both of these two behavioral therapies have been looked at together for dealing with depression.’ – Brandon Alderman, Assistant Professor, Department of Exercise Science and Sports Studies, Rutgers University.

In a previous study, the researchers also looked at the effects of a meditation and exercise combination for a group of young mothers who had been homeless but who were living in a residential treatment facility at the beginning of the study. The women had severe depression and high anxiety at the beginning of the study. After eight weeks, their depression and anxiety had eased. They also reported feeling more motivated and more positive about their lives.

The power duo. Why do meditation and exercise work so well together?

Meditation teaches a gentle acceptance that thoughts will come and go, and that none of them have to stay. It strengthens the ability to actively focus attention and to redirect it when needed.

We all have a filter through which we view the world. This filter can tilt our view towards positive or negative, depending on where we choose to put our attentionDepression thrives in a mind that spends too much time attending to negative thoughts and memories and cycling through them over and over. This seems to interfere with the capacity to create new memories which might balance or dilute the impact of negative events or memories. 

Being able to pull out of a cycle of negative thinking is vital for strong mental health. We need to be able to think about the past sometimes, but we also need to be able to stop. 

The power of the meditation/exercise combination lies in its capacity to stop negative thinking from getting out of control and causing fractures in otherwise healthy lives.

Both meditation and exercise have also been found to promote the growth and resilience of neurons (brain cells). The growth of neurons is vital for continued mental health. In an average healthy brain, thousands of new neurons are produced each day. When the growth of new brain cells slows down or stops, mental health is affected. The good news is that when this cell growth is increased, mental health is strengthened and symptoms of illnesses such as depression can be reversed.

New neurons are particularly responsive to day to day human experiences. Stress, toxins, and lack of sleep are just a few of the things that can slow down the production of new neurons. On the other hand, exercise, meditation and spending time with people we care about will encourage the growth of new neurons. It’s thought that one of the ways antidepressants work to improve depressive symptoms is by encouraging new neurons.

Separately, exercise and meditation are powerhouses for the growth of neurons, but they are even more powerful when they combine. Exercise increases the number of neurons and meditation rescues them from slipping away. The stronger the rate of neuron growth, the stronger our mental health. 

Studies have found that the rate of neuron growth in animals that run each day is double the rate in animals that don’t run. Once cells are born, they aren’t guaranteed a lengthy life. Even the healthiest of brains will lose many of these new cells within weeks of them being born. One of the ways to keep these neurons alive, and our mental health strong, is through any type of learning that requires mental effort. Meditation is one way to do this.  

Focused attention meditation. How do I do it? 

The beautiful thing about this study is that anyone can do it and nothing special is needed – no special equipment, no special skills, no therapy room, no incense, no ‘sounds of nature’ music – just you and somewhere comfy to be. Basically, the meditation involves sitting, breathing and focussing on something – nothing complicated at all.

Focused attention meditation is a variation of mindfulness of mindfulness. It builds the skills we need to be able to direct attention from thinking about the past or the future, to the present. 

As explained in the study,

‘As with most mindfulness-based practices, FA (focussed attention) meditation is associated with clarity of thoughts, recognition of feelings, the ability to control anger and an improved overall sense of well-being and positive emotion.’

It’s important to be able to let our minds spend time in the past or the future sometimes. It’s how we plan, learn and reminisce. In fact, research has found that positive, happy memories can also reverse depression. The trouble happens too much time is spent recalling negative memories or thinking negative thoughts.

Many people, especially those with busy minds, seem to find focussed meditation an easier way to practice meditation. Here’s how it’s done. 

  1. Choose something to focus on. The study used breathing as the focus, but it could actually be anything that involved the senses – listening (try relaxing music, the world outside), seeing (a painting, nature), touching (a warm bath, a massage), tasting (chocolate, anything covered in chocolate), smelling (scented candles, herbs or spices).
  2. Get yourself comfortable and let your body relax.
  3. Focus on whatever you’ve chosen and experience it fully. Try not to think about it. Just let it give you whatever it has to give.
  4. Let your chosen thing be the anchor. Any time your thoughts start to wander, gently acknowledge the wandering and shift your attention back.
  5. Remember, there’s no wrong way to do this. If your mind wanders, that’s completely okay – minds tend to love doing what they do best, and if yours is a wanderer, it might take some gentle guidance to be still.

And finally …

We’re pretty savvy beings when it comes to knowing how to look after our physical health, but to live strong, healthy lives, we also need to nurture our mental health. The power of a regular, combined practice of meditation and exercise is great news for anyone struggling with depression, but its remarkable effects on mental health mean that there’s something in it for all of us. 

18 Comments

Jonny

It a good article for us. About meditate.it is useful to use laying down meditation for with excercise or sitting?

Reply
Karen Young

This particular research explored slow-walking meditation and sitting meditation, but there is a lot of other research that has found benefits from many different forms of meditation.

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Jonny

It’s so good article for us. Could lying down meditation is same as focused attention meditation?

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Jessica Autumn

I have done meditation and exercise together many times over the years and my depression decreases dramatically. My problem is staying consistent. Even now I know these things will help, but don’t want to do it. I need to get in the habit again. Great information 🙂

Reply
Karishma

Wow, it’s such a great article. I love your articles. They amaze amd help me all the time.
I have been suffeeing from depression too. And I’m going to implement this idea in my life from now on.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

You’re so welcome Karishma. I’m pleased they’re helpful for you. I hope you keep finding info here that gives you what you need. I love that you’re going to try this.

Reply
M

Wonderful article, becides that using a warm bath as meditation focus might not be such a good idea. Most meditation teachers warn you not to do so as meditation could get you in a state where you might not realize you’re under water..

Reply
Jess

Usually in study of this nature, you would have (at least) three different treatment groups: one doing both the meditation and exercise, one doing just the exercise, and one doing just the meditation (and generally a further group that receives none of these treatments). In this study in looks like all participants were given the same treatment, so unfortunately there is nothing to compare to. Yes, they have provided a ‘healthy’ control group to the depressed group, but still given all participants the same treatment. So while there appears to be a positive effect from the treatment, how are we able to tell that it is the combination of both – as opposed to one or the other – that made the difference?

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Good question Jess. The study isn’t so much a comparison but a look at a particular intervention (MAP (Mental and Physical) training) on depression. MAP training is an intervention in itself and the benefits of this on the brain have been established in previous research. The goal of the study wasn’t to compare it to mental training alone or physical training alone, but to assess how this particular type of training changed the symptoms of depression. Previous research has shown that the reason MAP training is effective is because mental training and physical training work on the brain in different ways. The more new neurons the brain is able to produce, and the more resilient these neurons are, the stronger the brain will be. Previous research has shown that exercise promotes the growth of new neurons, but meditation keeps them alive. Hope this helps to make more sense of things.

Reply
Barbara Couturier

You know that you are trying !

That its simple and easy.

It is me moving forward on my own, who else is better at healing me than me ?

Its free !

Reply
Megan

It’s so helpful to have more research to support the tools I attempt to teach my clients. Thanks for another fabulous article!

Reply

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When our kids or teens are struggling, it can be hard to know what they need. It can also be hard for them to say. It can be this way for all of us - we don't always know what we need from the people around us. It might be space, or distraction, or silence, or maybe acknowledging and being there is enough. Sometimes we might need to know that the people we love aren't taking our need for space, or our confusion or anger or sadness personally, and that they are still there within reach.
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What can be easier is thinking about what other people might need. Asking this when they are calm can invite a different perspective and can give you some insight into what they need to hear when they are going through similar. Don't worry if you just get a shrug, or a disheartened, 'I don't know'. They don't need to know, and neither do we. The question in itself might be enough to open a new way through any sense of 'stuckness' or helplessness they might be feeling.
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#parenthood #parenting #positiveparenting #parentingtips #childdevelopment #parentingadvice #parentingtip #mindfulparenting #positiveparentingtips #neurodevelopment #parentingteens
Give them space to talk but you don’t need to fix anything. You’ll want to, but the answers are in them, not us. Sometimes the answer will be to feel it out, or push for change, or feel the futility of it all so the feeling can let go, knowing it’s done it’s job - it’s recruited support, or raised awareness that something isn’t right.

Sometimes the feelings might be seismic but the words might be gone for a while. That’s okay too. Do they want to start with whatever words are there? Or talk about something else? Or go for a walk with you? Watch a movie with you? Or do a spontaneous, unnecessary drive thru with you just because you can - no words, no need to explain - just you and them and car music for the next 20 minutes. 

The more you can validate what they’re feeling (maybe, ‘Today was big for you wasn’t it’) and give them space to feel, the more they can feel the feeling, understand the need that’s fuelling it, and experiment with ways to deal with it. Sometimes, ‘dealing with it’ might mean acknowledging that there is something that feels big or important and a little out of reach right now, and feeling the fullness and futility of that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days are rubbish, and that sometimes those days last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. But the learning comes from experience.

I wish our kids never felt pain, but we don’t get to decide that. We don’t get to decide how our children grow, but we do get to decide how much space and support we give them for this growth. We can love them through it but we can’t love them out of it. I wish we could but we can’t.

So instead of feeling the need to silence their pain, make space for it. In the end we have no choice. Sometimes all the love in the world won’t be enough to put the wrong things right, but it can help them feel held while they move through the pain enough to find their out breath, and the strength that comes with that.♥️
Speaking to the courage that is coming to life inside them helps to bring it close enough for them to touch, and to imagine, and to step into, even if doesn’t feel real for them yet. It will become them soon enough but until then, we can help them see what we see - a brave, strong, flight-ready child who just might not realise it yet. ‘I know how brave you are.’ ‘I love that you make hard decisions sometimes, even when it would be easier to do the other thing.’ ‘You might not feel brave, but I know what it means to you to be doing this. Trust me – you are one of the bravest people I know.’
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 #neurodevelopment #positiveparenting #parenting #parenthood #neuronurtured #parentingtip #childdevelopment #braindevelopment #mindfulparenting #parentingtips #parentingadvice
So often, our children will look to us for signs of whether they are brave enough, strong enough, good enough. Let your belief in them be so big, that it spills out of you and over to them and forms the path between them and their mountain. And then, let them know that the outcome doesn't matter. What matters is that they believe in themselves enough to try. 

Their belief in themselves might take time to grow, and that's okay. In the meantime, let them know you believe in them enough for both of you. Try, ‘I know this feels big and I know you can do it. What is one small step you can take? I’m right here with you.’♥️
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 #neurodevelopment #positiveparenting #parenting #parenthood #neuronurtured #parentingtip #childdevelopment #braindevelopment #mindfulparenting
Anxiety will tell our kiddos a deficiency story. It will focus them on what they can't do and turn them away from what they can. We know they are braver, stronger, and more powerful than they could ever think they are. We know that for certain because we’ve seen it before. We’ve seen them so held by anxiety, and we’ve seen them move through - not every time but enough times to know that they can. Even when those steps through are small and awkward and uncertain, they are brave. Because that’s how courage works. It’s fragile and strong, uncertain and powerful. We know that that about courage and we know that about them. 

Our job as their important adults is to give them the experiences that will help them know it too. This doesn't have to happen in big leaps. Little steps are enough, as long as they are forward. 

When their anxiety has them focused on what they can't do, focus them on what they can. By doing this, we are aligning with their capacity for brave, and bringing it into the light. 

Anxiety will have them believing that there are only two options - all or nothing; to do or not to do. So let's introduce a third. Let's invite them into the grey. This is where brave, bold beautiful things are built, one tiny step at a time. So what does this look like? It looks like one tiny step at a time. The steps can be so small at first - it doesn't matter how big they are, as long as they are forward. 
If they can't stay for the whole of camp, how much can they stay for?
If they can't do the whole swimming lesson on their own, how much can they do?
If they can't sleep all night in their own bed, how long can they sleep there for?
If they can't do the exam on their own, what can they do?
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When we do this, we align with their brave, and gently help it rise, little bit, by little bit. We give them the experiences they need to know that even when they feel anxious, they can do brave, and even when they feel fragile they are powerful.

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