Exercise boosts the endorphin levels in the brain, which eases depression. But meditation before exercise can substantially change brain activity to further reduce depression – potentially erasing the need for depression medications.
The biology of depression
Depression involves a pattern of rumination — dwelling on gloomy thoughts and unhappy memories from the past. Researchers suspect this pattern involves two areas of the brain: the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus. In fact, people with severe depression feature a smaller hippocampus.
Meditation and aerobic exercise affect those same portions of the brain. New research shows that performing two types of meditation before exercise can significantly reduce depression.
Breathing meditation + walking meditation + exercise
In the study, volunteers completed two meditation sessions (30 minutes total) before either biking or running on a treadmill for 30 minutes.
Twice a week, for eight weeks, they followed this pattern: The first 20-minute meditation practice involved counting breaths up to 10 and then backward – continually, for 20 minutes. This type of meditation requires a great deal of focus and thought control, and is not easy, researchers noted. Whenever they found thoughts wandering, volunteers were told not to worry – to simply start counting again from one.
Then, volunteers performed 10 minutes of what’s walking meditation, which also requires focus and concentration. After two meditation sessions, volunteers jumped on treadmills or exercise bikes for the final 30 minutes.
Meditation improves focus and concentration, reduces depression
Volunteers were much less inclined to ruminate on sad memories. They reported happier feelings than before the study. The benefit was in teaching depressed volunteers to focus and concentrate on a thought beyond their sadness.
The brain cell activity in their prefrontal cortex was almost identical to that of the people without depression. Study subjects could concentrate much better and hone their attention, attributes that are believed to reduce stubborn rumination.
Multiple health benefits of meditation and exercise
Meditation has been shown, in multiple studies, to improve immunity, metabolism, blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, stress level and performance under pressure. Tension and tightness ease when we meditate, which also promotes good sleep.
If meditation just doesn’t seem to work, another type of relaxation method might. Any practice that leads to relaxation and focused thoughts is beneficial, whether it’s meditation, yoga, breathing or repetitive prayer. The key is focus and repetition, but the repetition can be a word, sound, mantra, prayer, breathing or movement, Harvard researchers say.