Both exercise and meditation have been touted as great ways to reduce anxiety and depression, but together, these two might just be the best combination since peanut butter and jelly. A Rutgers University study published earlier this year in the journal Translational Psychology found that a combination of aerobic exercise and meditation reduced symptoms of depression by 40 percent.
Study subjects combined 30 minutes of meditation with 30 minutes of exercise just twice a week for two months. During that time, they saw what lead author Brandon Alderman, Ph.D., called a “meaningful improvement in both clinically depressed and non-depressed students.”
The study results show that while both meditation and exercise, on their own, can ease or improve symptoms of depression, the effects multiply when done together. Students who participated in the eight-week study also showed greater synchronization of brain activity and more ability to focus. They were less susceptible to feeling overwhelmed and anxious, and less likely to ruminate over the past—something that experts point to as a main contributor to depression.
The reason exercise and meditation work so well together, the study’s authors say, is because each one has a different but equally profound effect on the brain. Laboratory research has shown that exercise helps with the process of neurogenesis, or the development of new brain cells in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is that part of the brain associated with memory, learning and emotions; many studies have found that individuals suffering from depression have a smaller hippocampus than those who are not depressed.
Exercise also helps increase the flow of oxygen and blood, delivering more of those biochemical boosts that help your brain feel happy.
Meditation, on the other hand, activates our parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for calming down our central nervous system. It affects the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for thought analysis, judgment and controlling emotions. Brain studies of people who meditate have shown better signaling in the prefrontal cortex and a greater ability to focus and concentrate.
The study’s authors theorize that while the exercise helps create new brain cells, the meditation is responsible for keeping them alive and functioning. Together, this changes our ability to remain present, calm and focused, which plays a significant role in combating depression and anxiety.
While the Rutgers study did not look at the ongoing effects of combining exercise and meditation, that’s something the California-based Mind-Body Science Institute International is paying attention to.
“There’s no question that you do something better if you are able to do it more calmly,” says Joseph Cardillo, Ph.D., research associate for the institute. “We’ve conducted research showing the difference of adding meditation at the end of an exercise practice. It opens up a whole other way of looking at exercise and meditation.”
Those studies have shown exercisers who add a meditation component to their workouts are able to not only complete their exercise in a more mindful way, but carry that sense of calm into the rest of their lives.
“There’s been a lot of research on how meditation and mindfulness alone can have an effect on how the body heals,” Joseph says. “It promotes healing from injuries, from surgeries and it promotes healing from things like heart disease and cancer. So we’ve seen that meditation is a powerful force.”
Combining the power of meditation with the proven neurobiological benefits of exercise delivers benefits that Joseph agrees spill over into the rest of your life.
“The more parts of the brain you use, the stronger the potion,” he says. “When we start doing things more mindfully, it’s a whole other way of thinking. And when you add it to the energy of exercise, it really helps you get what your brain and your body needs.”
While no research has compared which is better, meditating at the beginning of an exercise practice or meditating at the end, what is evident is that meditation can make exercise more powerful and vice versa.
“It creates a whole cocktail of de-stressing,” Joseph says.
To read more about the myriad benefits of exercise, see our feature "Your Mind on the Move" in the February 2017 issue of Live Happy magazine.
Paula Felps is the Science Editor for Live Happy magazine.