Mental Health , News & Innovation
Both meditating and running have proven to change the brain change the brain in ways that are more beneficial for mental health—but only when practiced together and not alone, according to a study of a new treatment program for people with depression
Many people who have experienced depression would agree that it involves an inability to stop dwelling on gloomy thoughts and unhappy memories from the past. Researchers suspect that this thinking pattern, known as rumination, may involve two areas of the brain in particular: the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that helps to control attention and focus, and the hippocampus, which is critical for learning and memory. Some studies have shown that people with severe depression have been found to have a smaller hippocampus than people who are not depressed.
Oddly, meditation and exercise affect those same portions of the brain, although in different ways. Brain-scan studies show, for instance, that people who have practiced meditation for a long time generally display different patterns of brain-cell communication in their prefrontal cortex during cognitive tests than people who don’t meditate. It is believed that those differences lead to the meditators’ more honed ability to focus and concentrate.
Meanwhile, according to animal studies, aerobic exercise substantially increases the production of new brain cells in the hippocampus.
Both meditation and exercise also have proven beneficial in the treatment of anxiety, depression and other mood disorders.
Intrigued by these positive findings about exercise and meditation, researchers at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. wondered if combining the two activities might prove to be more effective in treating depression.
Their study published recently in Translational Psychiatry took 52 men and women as subjects, 22 of whom were diagnosed with depression. The researchers confirmed that diagnosis with their own tests and then asked all of the volunteers to complete a computerized test of their ability to focus while sensors measured electrical signals in their brains.
The researchers found that the depressed volunteers showed signaling patterns in their prefrontal cortex that are associated with poor concentration and focus.
Then the researchers had all of the volunteers begin a fairly rigorous, supervised program of sitting, followed by sweating.
Starting off the program, the subjects were taught a form of meditation known as focused attention. This is a beginner’s level mindfulness meditation that requires people to sit quietly and think about their respiration by counting their breaths up to 10 and then backward. For those who haven’t done this before, this practice will not be easy.
The volunteers meditated in this way for 20 minutes, then stood and undertook 10 minutes of walking meditation, in which they paid close attention to each footfall.
Then they clambered onto treadmills or stationary bicycles at the lab and jogged or pedaled at a moderate pace for 30 minutes (with five minutes of warming up and five minutes of cooling down).
These sessions went on for twice a week for eight weeks. Then the researchers retested the subjects’ moods and their ability to focus and concentrate.
The results indeed had significant difference to that before. The subjects with diagnosed depression now had a 40 percent reduction in symptoms of the condition. They reported, in particular, much less inclination to ruminate over bad memories.
The rest of the subjects also reported feeling a lift in moods compared to the start of the study.
Objectively, the subjects’ 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.
Such significant results after only eight weeks is indeed surprising, said Dr Alderman. He and his colleagues theorize that the meditation and exercise may have produced synergistic effects on the brains of their subjects.
While the exercise most likely increased the number of new brain cells in each subject’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.
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