The Benefits of Exercise, Meditation and Brain Health

Category: Benefits of Meditation | Health and Meditation | Meditation and the Brain | Stress and Anxiety

Exercise can benefit your meditation practice

Upon first glance, exercise and meditation offer similar benefits. Both help improve mood, reduce anxiety and depression, and can lead to a calm, balanced state of mind. But exercise is not a replacement for meditation, nor is meditation a replacement for exercise. The two have distinct benefits that are equally important for maintaining general wellbeing.

The Importance Of Incorporating Exercise and Meditation Practice

It’s tempting to think of meditation as a tool for brain health, while exercise is reserved for keeping the body in shape. But mind and body health cannot be split apart from one another. The benefits of meditation extend to the body, just as the benefits of exercise extend to the mind. Practice the two together, and you’ll experience a greater positive shift in mind-body health.

Exercise and meditation both boost oxygen and blood flow to the brain which promotes neurogenesis, the process by which new brain cells form. Each positively influences the brain by strengthening focus and concentration, while reducing anxiety and depression. Meditation and exercise both help you sleep better, age slower, and maintain your cognition for longer. Because the two activities affect the brain in slightly different ways, it’s preferable to do both. One is not a replacement for the other. That said, you might be wondering if you should meditate before or after a workout. When to meditate and exercise is up to you, results may differ.

Exercising Before Meditation

If you’re feeling agitated or restless, exercising before your meditation session can help the body settle down, allowing for a more peaceful seated practice. In part, this is why meditating in savasana at the end of your yoga class is so effective. Meditation after your workout has other benefits too. Intense exercise releases the stress hormone cortisol and activates the sympathetic nervous system. Meditating after a workout promotes quicker recovery by turning on the parasympathetic nervous system, clearing stress hormones and returning the body to a state of calm.

Meditation Before Exercise

Meditating before exercise can improve focus and performance. Elite athletes often use meditation as a means of calming nerves before competition. Guide the mind toward a state of breath and body awareness before you engage in movement, and you’re more likely to carry this awareness into the activity.

To reduce the symptoms of depression, studies have found meditating before exercise might be of greater benefit than either one alone. Both meditation and exercise decrease ruminative thinking, yet do so by acting on different areas of the brain. Putting the two together is a powerful combination.

Meditating While Exercising

Some sports, like archery, require meditative-like concentration. The repetitive movement of long distance aerobic activity, such as running, can drop you into a meditative state of mind. But can you really meditate while exercising? The answer is up to you. The Buddha never mandated that meditation be practiced in a seated position. We can meditate when walking, for example. Mindfulness is preferable during any activity, be it washing the dishes or going to the gym. When exercising, mindfulness improves body awareness, reduces injury and enhances performance.

The next time you go for a walk or a run, observe how much time you spend in the present moment, aware of body and breath. You’ll likely find that just as when you’re on your cushion, the moments when you’re in ‘the zone’ are punctuated by moments of distraction. To meditate while exercising is a worthwhile pursuit, but to practice each on its own offers profound, life-changing results.

About the Author: Sara-Mai Conway

Sara-Mai Conway writes articles about Buddhist meditation based on her practice and experience
Sara-Mai Conway is a writer, yoga and meditation instructor living and working in Baja California Sur, Mexico. Her writing and teachings are informed by her personal practice and Buddhist studies. When not at her desk, she can be found teaching donation-based community classes in her tiny, off-grid hometown on the Pacific Coast. Learn more about Sara-Mai Conway here.

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