Approaching exercise solely from a physical perspective without exploring the benefits of meditation and mindfulness may be leaving out a key element that may surprise both you and your clients. Research has demonstrated that regular meditation practice can create lasting positive changes in brain activity, mood and regulate stress hormones. Let’s get mindful about fitness!
If you have ever traveled to the Far East, you may have noticed the vast cultural differences between life there and our typical Western culture. While many similarities do exist, we have yet to integrate a valuable fitness tool considered standard in many Asian countries. It is not a creative, cutting-edge piece of exercise equipment, but rather a dedicated practice to the disciplines of meditation and mindfulness.
Americans tend to dismiss these practices for a variety of reasons. Many simply do not embrace this particular mindset; others were never taught how to meditate properly or effectively. There are even those for whom sitting quietly and harnessing inner energy seems virtually impossible with a hectic lifestyle.
The old notion of “meditating” while sitting on cushions, legs-crossed, and chanting “ohm” over and over again is being replaced with mindfulness exercises designed to enrich one’s quality of life and enhance productivity, even in the workplace. Even the fitness world has come around to incorporating dedicated quiet time into otherwise highly dynamic workouts and classes. The benefits have astounded the most seasoned professionals, especially when incorporated at the end of a training session.
A particularly impressive aspect of post-workout meditation lies in its ability to encourage muscle recovery. Studies have found that the practice of regular meditative sessions (daily or a few times a week) can help change the way that the brain is structured, changes that last even throughout non-contemplative parts of the day.
In 2012, an instructor at Harvard Medical School’s Center for Biomedical Imaging used brain scans to demonstrate how changes in brain activity brought about during a meditative session continue even when subjects are engaged in other aspects of their lives.
The Best of Both Worlds
Regular aerobic exercise and meditation have both proven themselves as effective mood enhancers. What might happen if group exercise instructors or personal trainers blended these two practices into a single session? As it turns out, the results are worth noting. In the first study ever to examine the two therapies in tandem, the combination approach apparently reduced symptoms of clinical depression by as much as 40%.
To determine if this one-two punch approach to major depression might, in some patients, replace the need for heavy medication, Rutgers University researchers set up an 8-week experiment. The subject panel consisted of 52 young adults, 22 of whom had received a diagnosis of clinical depression.
Twice a week for eight consecutive weeks, these individuals meditated for 30 minutes, focusing on mindful thoughts and paying close attention to their breathing, followed immediately by 30 minutes on a treadmill. At the completion of every session, the researchers assessed the participants’ emotional states.
At the end of eight weeks, all subjects — both those who had been diagnosed with major depression as well as their healthier counterparts — reported significant improvements in mood and a decrease in anxiety levels. They also observed a reduction in time spent focusing on any negativity in their lives.
“We were especially surprised that [the training] reduced ruminations about the past,” says study co-author Tracey Shors, a psychology professor at Rutgers’s Center for Collaborative Neuroscience. “These thought patterns can be difficult to change. Meditation activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which lessens the stress response,” she adds.
“But meditation also has a large learning component. The person who practices meditation consistently learns to understand his own mind and the way thoughts come and go. Likely, the combination of meditation and exercise is especially effective because the change in autonomic and central nervous system activity is quite profound.”
Cortisol, the hormone that is produced when we experience stress, has received much attention over the last decade. At low or reasonable levels, circulating cortisol is a highly valuable tool, helping to improve mood, protect cells against adversity, and perhaps to a lesser extent, assist with fat loss.
At the far end of the spectrum, an excess of cortisol coursing throughout the body brings about undesirable physiological changes. Instead of acting as a fat-burning machine, the body interprets abnormally high cortisol levels as a signal that something is amiss in the surroundings. Physiological “emergency measures” kick in: the immune system becomes compromised, complete with exaggerated inflammation and the unfortunate accumulation of abdominal fat.
The human body cannot discern the subtle differences between various forms of stress. Cortisol is released in the same fashion whether one sits in the midst of frustrating traffic conditions, rushes to meet a deadline at work, or powers through a particularly difficult workout. Since meditation helps “center” the body, clear the mind and reduce tension, engaging in this practice can help mitigate the cortisol spike.
A group of researchers in Thailand theorized that a habit of regular contemplative mindfulness might control serum cortisol levels. After just four days of engaging in this practice, 100% of the test subjects exhibited a significant decrease in amounts of circulating cortisol. The scientists concluded that post-workout meditation serves a significant role in the exercise recovery process.
Getting “Centered” at the Gym
On the cutting edge of our ever-evolving industry, we are seeing the emergence of “science-based meditation gyms” that track participants’ brain activity and encourage disciplined meditation routines the same way personal trainers foster a commitment to intensive exercise regimens.
Sean Finnell, a co-founder of Toronto-based Mindset Brain Gym, reminds us, “If you (told) someone in the 1950’s you were going for a run, people would be like, ‘Who are you running from?’” Such a cerebral approach to total fitness has shifted from “…a niche part of the market to an accepted necessity. The brain is the next frontier of that.”
Putting It All Together
Holly Rilinger, a master trainer for Nike, has created an innovative group exercise class format. She inserts yoga-like moves between tough exercise segments in a HIIT class, and concludes the session with a five-minute guided meditation. As opposed to the techno-club music typically heard in HIIT classes, Rilinger opts for music designed to “flow”, encouraging participants to tap into how the mind and body are feeling.
“It’s OK if your mind starts to wander; that’s normal no matter when or how you meditate, but bringing you back to the present, to the room you’re in and how you’re feeling with each movement, helps you move with intention for every part of the high-intensity training. It makes the most of your time and gives you a great workout.”
Rilinger’s class is designed to train the mind as well as the body in the same fashion: through the power of positive thinking. Being present and contemplative throughout cardio strength training enables participants to develop a deeper connection between mind, body, and spirit. Rilinger refers to this as “The Joy Factor.”
Instructor Adam Rosante postulates on the question of how this process works, and why it is so highly effective: “We’re not sitting on a cushion with our eyes closed. We’re moving. The key is syncing the movement with the breath to bring you into the present moment while prepping the physical body for exercise.” He goes on to say that “…(meditating) under physical stress improves your ability to do it elsewhere.”
Dr. Travis Baird, a mindfulness teacher and performance coach, contends that meditation helps free up mental resources, thereby allowing for more efficient brain functioning which boosts one’s workout routine. By tapping into “motivational energy”, participants not only encounter a more productive hour of training but also diminish the likelihood of sustaining an injury. Over time and through regular repetition, every workout becomes more effective.
Clients have come to respect what their bodies can gain from training. In a similar fashion, meditative contemplation provides a unique space for us to respect and practice gratitude. When we focus solely upon the physical, we miss out on an opportunity to realize just how hard a workout was, and to fully acknowledge our success.