Gretchen Reynolds on Running + Meditation to Treat Depression

Vigorous physical exercise and mindfulness meditation are both effective practices for fighting depression.

Fitness writer Gretchen Reynolds penned an excellent piece for the New York Times this week entitled “Meditation Plus Running as a Treatment for Depression”. Reynolds outlines the depression-fighting benefits of both practices. She also looks at recent research which suggests that combining the two may magnify those benefits.

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The research team, led by Rutgers professor Brandon Alderman, put a group of volunteers through an eight-week program of meditation followed immediately by exercise. Roughly half the volunteers had been diagnosed with depression before starting the program.

There were significant changes. The 22 volunteers with depression now had a 40 percent reduction in symptoms of the condition. They reported, in particular, much less inclination to ruminate over bad memories. […]

Objectively, the volunteers’ results on the computerized tests of their ability to focus and their brain activity also were different. The group with depression now showed brain cell activity in their prefrontal cortex that was almost identical to that of the people without depression. They could concentrate much better and hone their attention, attributes that are believed to help reduce stubborn rumination. […]

So while the exercise most likely increased the number of new brain cells in each volunteer’s hippocampus, Dr. Alderman said, the meditation may have helped to keep more of those neurons alive and functioning than if people had not meditated.

Meditation also may have made the exercise more tolerable, he said, since some studies indicate that being mindful of your breathing and your body during workouts increases people’s enjoyment of the exertion.

The evidence for physical exercise as an effective treatment for depression is overwhelming. The evidence for meditation’s benefits is not quite as overwhelming but still strong. Both are excellent habits to develop as part of an overall depression-smashing lifestyle.

This study’s conclusions on how meditation and exercise work together sound a bit speculative. It could just be that (a) exercise works and (b) meditation works and (c) doing both regularly is bound to make you feel better.

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