Meditating before running could help to relieve depression considerably more than practicing either activity on its own, according to an interesting new study published in the journal ‘Translational Psychiatry’.
The study looks at 2 areas of the brain believed to be involved in depression, the prefrontal cortex, which deals with attention and focus, and the hippocampus, which is involved with memory and learning. It is believed that these 2 brain areas may play a role in the ‘rumination’ involved in depression – the repeated replaying of unhappy thoughts and memories.
It has been shown in the past in brain scan studies that experienced meditators show different patterns of brain-cell activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is believed to show an improved ability to concentrate and focus on cognitive tasks.
On the other hand, aerobic activity like running is often recommended for depression, and it is thought that this kind of activity may increase the production of new brain cells in the hippocampus.
These 2 apparently contradictory treatments for depression caught the attention of researchers at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., who decided to investigate what would happen if they were combined.
They recruited men suffering from depression, alongside a second group without any mental health diagnosis. As expected, the depressed volunteers initially showed brain activity in the prefrontal cortex that is associated with poor concentration and focus.
They then began the meditation+running sequence: First a simple form of mindfullness meditation in which you focus on your breathing pattern. This was practiced while sitting quietly for 20 minutes.
Then an intermediate stage – they stood up and walked for 10 minutes, focusing on their footfalls.
Finally they got onto treadmills or exercise bikes and exercised at a moderate pace for a further 30 minutes.
This pattern was repeated 16 times over 8 weeks, after which they were retested.
The researchers found significant changes, with all of the volunteers reporting feeling generally happier, and the depressed volunteers reporting a 40 percent reduction in symptoms of the condition, and especially the tendency to ruminate.
Interestingly, the brain activity in the prefrontal cortex areas of the depressed group was almost identical to normal (non-depressed) activity.
Dr. Alderman, leading the study, believes that meditation and exercise may have worked synergistically to produce these results, with the exercise increasing new brains cells in the hippocampus and the meditation helping to keep them alive and functioning well.
A Chinese Medicine Viewpoint
In Chinese medicine terms, it makes sense to me that these 2 very different activities can both help with depression, and may be even more effective if combined. In fact, it conforms to the basic principle that a healthy mind needs a healthy body, and vice versa.
In fact, using different tools to treat the same condition is one of the foundations of my own Chinese medicine practice, and also one of the things I teach in my online CONSCIOUS CULTIVATION course. Normally, a balanced, combined approach like this works better, quicker, and with less effort.
When you move the physical body, you move your Qi, and clear stagnation. This is important for depression and other mental health conditions which generally involve an element of Qi stagnation. That’s why exercise is so good for clearing the blues.
And meditation is an effective way to settle the Shen, or spirit. It helps you to think clearly, and stay grounded and calm. It’s an extremely useful technique for good mental (and emotional) health.
So, my conclusion from this study: If you meditate, but don’t do much exercise, or vice versa, then try to balance the two, and you’ll reap the benefits in many ways!