By Gabriela De Almeida
In the past, exercise and meditation have both proven efficient in reducing symptoms associated with mood disorders like anxiety and depression. Researchers in New Jersey set out to see if performing the two activities together might provide a synergistic effect by enhancing the effects that each has on a person’s mood, because no study to date had assessed their combined effects, according to a New York Times article.
The new study published in Translational Psychiatry found that meditation and aerobic exercises done together can drastically decrease depression. The study, which was published in February and conducted by professors at Rutgers University, found that meditation done before running greatly improved brain functions related to depression compared to those who performed the activities separately.
The scientists recruited 52 student volunteers, 22 of which had been diagnosed with clinical depression. They had the volunteers complete a test on their ability to focus to measure the electrical signals in their brains. They found that of the 22 depressed volunteers, most of them showed patterns associated with poor concentration and focus in their prefrontal cortex.
To test the combined effects of meditation and aerobic exercises done together, the volunteers were taught a form of attention-focused meditation, which required them to sit quietly, think about their respiration, and count their breaths to 10 and then backward. They meditated for 20 minutes, then they did 10 minutes of a walking meditation–paying close attention to each step.
Next, they jogged or pedaled on treadmills and stationary bikes in the lab at a moderate pace for 30 minutes. They did the meditation and aerobic sessions two times a week for eight weeks straight.
After eight weeks, the researchers re-tested the students’ moods and ability to focus and concentrate. The 22 students who were depressed, had a 40 percent reported reduction in symptoms of their condition. Particularly, they reported a much lower inclination to ruminate, or continuously think about bad memories. The volunteers in the non-depressed control group reported feeling generally happier than they had at the beginning of the study as well.
The group with depression showed brain cell activity in their prefrontal cortex that was almost identical to that of the group without depression. They reported concentrating much better after the study, and having more control over their attention span, which are both attributes believed to help reduce ruminating on bad memories or thoughts
The study claims that the exercises likely increased the number of new brain cells in the students’ hippocampus, and the meditation most likely helped keep more of their neurons alive and functioning than if they hadn’t been meditating.
In addition, the meditation might have also made the aerobic exercises more enjoyable, since being mindful of your breathing during workouts increases enjoyment of the exertion, according to the study.
Until recently, the most common types of treatments for depression were psychotropic medications, but recent studies including this one, indicate that these medications may not be as effective as we once thought because relapse can often occur after stopping medication, according to a press release about the study.
Aerobic exercise and meditation aren’t accompanied by serious side effects, and they can be practiced throughout your entire lifespan.