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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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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