Researchers are pondering the power of slowing down then speeding up.
To some, meditation and a hard cardio workout may seem diametrically opposed: One slows you down, inspires calm and zen. The other gets your heart rate up, makes you sweat, pushes you to exhaustion. But they do share a common payoff in the form of significant mental benefits.
Today, scientists are starting to wonder: Is there a happy medium—a way to combine the mental boons of meditation with the known cognitive benefits of cardiovascular exercise? Beyond the yoga studio, of course, could combining cardio and meditation provide the ultimate mind-body session?
Just last month, researchers from Rutgers found that when people meditated for 30 minutes then performed 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, they reported fewer depressive symptoms, were less anxious, more motivated, had a more focused outlook, and even saw positive changes in brain activity.
One hour—30 sweating, 30 sitting: It’s a regimen most people could do, says Tracey Shors, Ph.D., a distinguished professor of behavioral and systems neuroscience at Rutgers University and co-author of the study.
And while research is still speculative, the benefits may boil down to using your brain and your heart, says Shors. “You're activating the mind and the parasympathetic nervous system and following that with blood flow to brain and activation of the sympathetic nervous system.”
Using many different bodily systems brings more blood and oxygen to the brain, which can change neuronal activity, she adds.
“There’s something very enhancing about the oxygen part of aerobic activity. There’s no doubt that exercise is good for the brain—as is meditation. I think combining them makes it a really efficient use of time and energy.”
Brandon Alderman, Ph.D., Shor’s co-author, adds that since meditation familiarizes you with your own mind, it could help you let go of negative or distracting thoughts during a workout. Acute effects of meditating do include improved concentration and focus.
“One can extrapolate and say, ‘Well, if you're in a more focused state, maybe you could focus more on what you need to do next. If what you need to do next is exercise, then you may be more focused,” says Wendy Suzuki, Ph.D., a professor of neural science and psychology at New York University who was not involved with the Rutgers research.
It’s too soon to prescribe a time and place for meditation as a part of a workout. But fitting it into a fit life may be easier than you think. There could be a benefit to practicing at anytime of the day, says Shors. And since there’s strong research surrounding the motivation-boosting benefits of aerobic exercise (and since reaching a meditative state can prove difficult), there’s a case for post-workout zen, too, says Suzuki.
The trick will be carving out the time: HIIT meditation may not be trending any time soon. “My experience with meditation is that you have to do it long enough to learn your own mind—you have to go through the process of being anxious and bored,” says Shors.
While Suzuki is currently testing the benefits of just 10 minutes of meditation a day, to date, there’s not a known dose response. Unlike exercise, studying the effects of meditation proves difficult. Testing animals isn't easy.
As Suzuki puts it: “Rats don’t meditate."