If you're suffering from depression—or even just occasional negative thoughts—combining meditation and exercise can help, according to findings from a recent study. MAP training: combining meditation and aerobic exercise reduces depression and rumination while enhancing synchronized brain activity. Alderman BL, Olson RL, Brush CJ. Translational psychiatry, 2016, Feb.;6():2158-3188. After meditating and working out for two hours per week, depressed students reduced their symptoms by 40 percent. Students who were healthy to begin with saw a benefit too: They thought less about negative situations. The study was pretty small (only 52 students)—nowhere near the size needed to extrapolate—but the findings are exciting, especially considering that hundreds of free meditation and fitness apps are just a click away.
The researchers say the effectiveness of this combo has a lot to do with attention. Many people who suffer from depression have trouble drawing their focus away from negative thoughts. Exercise has been shown to help your brain grow new cells, and meditation helps you focus. "If you do two activities that elicit the relaxation response, help you focus on the present, get you out of a negative mindset, and reduce the amount of stress hormones pumping through your body, you will rewire your brain and feel happier," says Ronit Levy, Psy.D., clinical director of the Bucks County Anxiety Center.
This strategy may not work for everyone, though. There's a big difference between negative thoughts and painful feelings, which many depressed people experience, says Jeffrey Rubin, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and meditation teacher.
The participants in this study were also willing to meditate and exercise, but depression has been associated with a lower motivation to work out, says Sherry Pagoto, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist. "We know that exercise is beneficial," she says. "But the million dollar question is how to inspire people to do it regularly."
And it's important to note: While this study champions exercise and meditation, it never says they should replace therapy or medication.