Meditation is good for you. (Got it.) Aerobic exercise is good for you. (Roger that.)
Indeed, scientific literature abounds with evidence that both statements are valid. So it might follow that combining the two behavioral therapies—called mental and physical training or MAP training—in pursuit of emotional self-care might also be good for you.
One can assume, of course, but a 2016 study from Rutgers University validates this hypothesis. The authors said their research demonstrates the effectiveness of a combined behavioral approach in improving mental and cognitive health outcomes for those with major depressive disorder, and also for those who are otherwise healthy.
“We had wondered if the two therapies might be synergistic,” said lead study author Brandon Alderman, Ph.D., of the Department of Kinesiology and Health at Rutgers. “The idea was also to show the benefits of treating not only the mind but the body, clinically integrating the two behaviors.”
Dr. Alderman said there’s clear evidence of such a synergy between meditation and exercise in people. He also cited previous studies conducted using rat models in which mental and physical training also positively impacted the brain’s hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. The hippocampus is responsible for consolidation of both short- and long-term memory, while the prefrontal cortex controls executive functions such as planning and personality development.
Here’s how they did it: Alderman’s team recruited 52 college-aged participants, 20 of whom were diagnosed with depression, while the others were not. Participants undertook 30 minutes of guided meditation twice a week, immediately followed by 30 minutes of aerobic exercise.
The researchers measured cardiorespiratory fitness using a treadmill as oxygen consumption was assessed. They assessed depression clinically through an interview and evaluated rumination using a classic scientific scale, he said. The team evaluated cognitive control using electrodes placed on the scalp while participants responded to stimuli during a standardized test. They found that eight weeks of MAP training resulted in improvements in depression symptoms with a reduction of nearly 40 percent in those who were clinically depressed at baseline, or the start of the study.
“Improvements in cognitive control were also found from pre-to-post intervention, suggesting that these improvements in cognition may help to drive the reductions in depressive symptoms and rumination,” said Alderman. “Importantly, these improvements in cognition and mental health were found despite improvements in fitness, suggesting that even low-to-moderate doses of exercise combined with meditation may help those suffering from depression.”
Alderman reflected on reasons why, if exercise is proven to be healthy, more people generally don’t do it, including those with depression. “People with depression frequently find it difficult to exercise and just have ruminative thoughts instead,” he said. “They may have intention, i.e., ‘I know I should, but I’m feeling down and I just don’t want to.’ This can incite a downward spiral in a person’s thought patterns, making it difficult to accomplish their intentions to exercise.”
That’s where meditation enters into this paradoxical equation. “Quite possibly the process of engaging in meditation and allowing yourself to non-emotionally and non-judgmentally release those unwanted thoughts might allow you to increase cognitive control processes and ‘tack on’ the intention to exercise,” he said.
As seasoned practitioners of mediation know so well, he explained, when you “let go,” you become more present and then can act on your intention to exercise.
And as for your physical being: “If you’re not exercising, we might encourage you to start, based upon our data,” Alderman said.
Learn more about what happens when you balance meditation with exercise:
The author of this post is an editorial contributor to Headspace. These are their views, experiences and results and theirs alone. This contributor was paid for their writing.