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?

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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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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