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.

Reply
Jonny

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

Reply
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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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