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The Scientific Reason Exercise and Meditation Help Depression

How to prevent negative thoughts and problems from overwhelming your life—even if you don't suffer from depression.

If there was a way to be happier and protect your mind and body against depression naturally, effectively, and quickly, would you do it? What if we told you that a mind-body combination of meditation and exercise done just twice a week for two months could reduce depressive symptoms by up to 40 percent—even in people who don't suffer from depression? Turns out, that's all it take, according to new findings from Rutgers University. 

In the study, 55 men and women completed the eight-week program: 22 suffered with depression and 30 were mentally healthy. Over the course of two months, all participants spent 30 minutes on focused-attention meditation (a type of meditation that requires participants to focus on one thing and exclude everything else; in this case, participants were asked to focus on their breath) followed by 30 minutes of aerobic exercise two times a week. During the meditation, they were also instructed to redirect their focus on their breathing if their thoughts began to float to the past or future. The aim of this was to enable them to “accept moment-to-moment changes in attention.” 

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After the two months, all participants expressed fewer depressive symptoms, spent less time worrying about negative situations, and were able to deal with problems and prevent negative thoughts more effectively. By learning to focus their attention through meditation and exercise, the men and women fighting depression were able to acquire new cognitive skills, which helped them process information and reduce the overwhelming recollection of past memories.  

"Scientists have known for a while that both of these activities [meditation and exercise] alone can help with depression," study author Tracey Shors said in a press release. "But this study suggests that when done together, there is a striking improvement in depressive symptoms along with increases in synchronized brain activity."

But why exactly does exercise and meditation have such an uplifting effect on our mind and body?

Thousands of new neurons are produced in the hippocampus—the region involved in learning—each day in a healthy brain via a process called neurogenesis, the researchers explain in the study abstract. But stressful life events tend to decrease neurogenesis (promoting depression), while antidepressants can increase cell production (combating depression). But medication isn't the only answer.

Aerobic exercise can significantly increase the number of cells produced in the hippocampus, effectively benefitting brain structure, function, and overall mental health. And meditation, or more specifically, focused-attention meditation challenges the brain because it requires a significant amount of mental effort to perform; in turn, each session represents a new learning opportunity. "Theoretically, the combination of aerobic exercise and FA meditation may increase the number of newborn cells in the hippocampus and rescue these newly generated cells, which may be integrated into the brain circuitry," according to the study abstract. 

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Wanna implement both in your life? Download The 3 Best Meditation Apps For Your Smartphone and read An Athlete's Guide To Mindful Meditation. As for the exercise: "It takes about 30 minutes from the start of exercise to release endorphins," says clinical sport psychologist, Gloria Petruzzelli, Psy.D. These feel-good hormones—that boost mood and happiness, and minimize pain and discomfort—are released during any sort of exercise whether it's running, weight lifting, yoga, or swimming. But it takes longer bouts of exercise to really increase levels of "pleasure" neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. 

"When we talk about having an active and healthy lifestyle, this is one aspect that we are talking about: maintaining a consistent exercise regimen and meditation practice in order to keep reaping the benefits of improved mood and health," Petruzzelli explains.

The bottom line: Committing to a long-term workout regimen and pairing it with meditation just a couple times a week is committing to a healthier body and mind.

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