Meditating prior to running may change the brain in ways that are better for mental health than either of those activities alone, at least according to a study of a new treatment program for people with depression.
As sufferers know, depression is characterised in part by continuous negative thoughts and reminiscing about unhappy memories from the past. Researchers suspect that this thought pattern, known as ‘rumination’, may take place in two specific areas of the brain: the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that helps to regulate attention and focus, and the hippocampus, which is essential for learning and memory. Some research indicates that people with severe depression have a smaller hippocampus than people who are not suffering from depression.
Meditation and exercise have been found to affect those same portions of the brain, although in different ways. In brain scan studies, people who meditate regularly generally display different patterns of brain-cell communication in their prefrontal cortex during cognitive tests than people who don’t. Those differences are believed to indicate that those practicing meditation possess a more refined ability to focus and concentrate.
The effect of exercise is also apparent in animal studies where aerobic exercise has been shown to substantially increase the production of new brain cells in the hippocampus.
Both meditation and exercise also have proven to contribute favourably in the treatment of anxiety, depression and other mood disorders.
These findings about exercise and meditation interested researchers at Rutgers University in New
Brunswick, N.J., who theorised that since meditation and exercise on their own improve moods, combining the two might intensify the impacts of each.
So a new study, which was published last month in Translational Psychiatry was conducted. In this study the scientists enlisted 52 men and women, 22 of whom had been given diagnoses of depression. The researchers confirmed that diagnosis with a battery of their own tests and then asked all of the volunteers to complete a computerised evaluation of their ability to focus while sensors were used to gauge electrical signals in their brains.
The results showed that the depressed volunteers showed brainwave patterns in their prefrontal cortex that are often associated with poor concentration and focus issues.
Then the scientists had all the volunteers begin a closely supervised program of inactivity, followed by sweating.
In the first part of the study volunteers were instructed in a form of meditation known as ‘focused attention’. This is an entry level mindfulness meditation. It required that the volunteers sit quietly and control their breathing by counting their breaths up to 10 and then backward. This practice can be challenging at first.
If people found their thoughts wandering during the meditation, and especially if they began to dwell on unpleasant memories, they were instructed not to worry or become self-judgemental, but just to start counting again from one
said Brandon Alderman, a professor of exercise science at Rutgers who led the study.
The volunteers meditated in this way for 20 minutes, then stood and undertook 10 minutes of walking meditation, in which they focused on each footfall.
Then they used treadmills or stationary bicycles at the lab and jogged or pedalled at a moderate pace for 30 minutes (with five minutes of warming up and five minutes of cooling down).
The volunteers completed these sessions 2x a week for two months. Then the researchers retested their moods and their ability to focus and concentrate.
All volunteers demonstrated significant changes. The 22 volunteers with depression now had a 40 percent reduction in symptoms of the condition. They reported, in particular, much less inclination to revisit bad memories.
The members of the healthy control group also reported feeling happier than they had at the start of the study.
The volunteers’ results on the computerised tests (of their ability to focus and their brain activity) were also different. The group with depression now demonstrated brain activity in their prefrontal cortex that was almost the same as people not suffering from depression. They could focus much better and refine their methods of paying attention, both attributes that are believed to help reduce stubborn rumination.
Dr. Alderman and his colleagues theorise that the meditation and exercise may have produced synergistic effects on the brains of their volunteers.
Dr. Alderman believes that the exercise most likely increased the number of new brain cells in each volunteer’s hippocampus, while the meditation may have assisted in keeping more of those neurons alive and fully functional.
Meditation also may have made the exercise more pleasant, he said, since some studies indicate that being mindful of your breathing and your body during workouts increases people’s enjoyment of exercise.
While was a small study and the scientists did not continue to monitor their volunteers in the long term, it is not known if the mood improvements continue. The researchers also have no idea whether similar or even greater benefits might occur if someone were to run and then meditate or to practice both activities but on alternating days. Further studies are planned to add essential knowledge that will allow the approach to be refined.