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 attention. Depression 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.
- 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).
- Get yourself comfortable and let your body relax.
- 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.
- Let your chosen thing be the anchor. Any time your thoughts start to wander, gently acknowledge the wandering and shift your attention back.
- 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.