For many people, staying motivated to exercise on a regular basis can be difficult. Even with the best of intentions, competing responsibilities can get in the way. Likewise, maintaining a consistent enthusiasm week after week to jog, bicycle, or get to the gym is hard. This is particularly true as Daylight Savings Time changes in the late fall. Not only does it become darker sooner, but temperatures start to drop as well. Understanding this, it’s important to seek out a few techniques that might help. Some people embrace frigid workouts as a way to change things up. But one of the most interesting ones, as it turns out, involves mindfulness meditation.
The benefits of mindfulness and meditation are well-recognized. Not only does meditation help relieve stress and promote relaxation. But it has also been found to improve sleep, lower blood pressure, and improve your mood. Now, it seems that one of the benefits of mindfulness also includes its ability to promote physical activity. While it is not precisely clear how meditation and exercise are linked, evidence suggests it might boost motivation. Therefore, for those struggling to stick to a workout routine, mindfulness meditation might be worth a try. And since both meditation and exercise improve overall wellness, there’s not much to lose.
The Latest Research on Meditation and Exercise
In September, a research study was published that examined just how meditation and exercise might be linked. Investigators at University of Wisconsin-Madison, Iowa State University, and other institutions recruited 49 people for the study. Some participated in a structured exercise program for 2 months while others performed mindfulness meditation. Another few were used as a control group and went about their normal routines. All the study participants wore activity monitors to evaluate any effects on physical activity. Likewise, not only did the researchers collect movement data throughout the study but weeks afterwards as well.
Interestingly, the control group of participants saw a decrease of activity by 18 minutes a day as winter approached. This is higher than normal since the average reduction of activity is about 11 minutes per day in the winter. But the exercise group and the meditation group only had a reduction of six minutes per day during this time. Both groups also sustained these benefits of meditation and exercise several weeks later. The researchers weren’t surprised by this for the exercise group. But they had trouble explaining why these benefits of mindfulness in the other participants.
How Mindfulness Meditation Works
Notably, there are several ways one can participate in mindfulness meditation. There are breathing techniques that can be used for meditation. Similarly, one can use guided imagery, mindfulness apps, and other strategies. In fact, some people combine meditation and exercise when performing yoga and running. In each instance, however, the goal is the attain an intense awareness of one’s sensations, feelings, and thoughts. This is done without any interpretation or judgment, which would distract from the practice. Over time with repeated practice, this allows someone to enjoy the many benefits of mindfulness meditation.
The primary effects of mindfulness meditation results from its ability to stimulate a parasympathetic nervous response. The parasympathetic system slows down our heart rate, lowers our blood pressure, and exerts an overall relaxing effect. But mindfulness works in other ways as well. Neuroscience research has shown that regular mindfulness meditation increases the gray matter in the front part of the brain. Called the prefrontal cortex, this area is important for planning, problem-solving, and emotional control. But it’s also involved in determining just how motivated we might be to perform some task. Interestingly, this might be how meditation and exercise changes seen in the study are linked.
Creating Healthy Exercise Habits
In order to maintain a regular exercise routine, it’s important to keep a strong level of motivation. If mindfulness has the potential to influence motivation, then we may be able to use this to create healthier habits. When it comes to habits, neuroscience also has some important insights for us. Unlike goal-directed behavior where we consciously weigh the pros and cons of each decision and action, habits differ. Habitual behaviors are more automatic, often occurring without our awareness. But we do have the ability to change our habits if we choose to become more aware of them. Therefore, this might be one of the additional benefits of mindfulness that are less well known.
Interestingly, the same area of the brain that increases with mindfulness meditation is also important for influencing our habits. A part of the prefrontal cortex, called the orbitofrontal cortex, is normally used when we have to make a difficult choice. Therefore, it is primarily active when we are making conscious decisions. However, as we become more mindful about our habits, we engage this same prefrontal area. If we apply this to our workout habits, then it’s easy to see how this might help. By combining meditation and exercise goals, we can boost our motivation and create healthy fitness habits. This highlights how the benefits of mindfulness extend well beyond relaxation and stress relief.
Realizing the Benefits of Mindfulness
In the study aforementioned New York Times study, the group that participated in mindfulness meditation did so on a daily basis. In addition to at-home sessions, they also attended weekly sessions at the research center. This was enough for them to realize some significant effects after a two-month period. For those finding it hard to stick to an exercise schedule, combining meditation and exercise might be the answer. In addition, it’s important to explore the benefits of mindfulness beyond increased self-awareness. Using meditation to increase your motivation for exercise by reevaluating your current habits and routines is also important. By taking this approach to meditation and exercise, you’ll be more likely to reap all the benefits of mindfulness.
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