Exercise Combined with Meditation Fights Depression

A novel clinical intervention that combines mental training through meditation and physical training through aerobic exercise effectively reduces the symptoms of depression.

Mental and physical (MAP) training, a novel clinical intervention that combines mental training through meditation and physical training through aerobic exercise, appears to effectively reduce the symptoms of depression, according to a recent study from Rutgers University researchers.

Whereas previous research has shown the individual beneficial effects of aerobic exercise and meditation for depression, the current study— Published online on February 2, 2016 in Translational Psychiatryfound that a combination of the two appears to be particularly effective in increasing cognitive control processes and decreasing ruminative thought patterns in patients with depression.

“We are excited by the findings because we saw such a meaningful improvement in both clinically depressed and non-depressed students,” said lead author Brandon Alderman, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Exercise Science and Sports Studies at Rutgers. “It is the first time that both of these two behavioral therapies have been looked at together for dealing with depression.”

MAP training was translated from neuroscientific studies that indicated that the intervention increases neurogenesis in the adult brain. Each MAP session consist for 30 minutes of focused-attention (FA) meditation and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise.

For the study, 22 people with depression and 30 mentally healthy participants completed two sessions per week for 8 weeks. All participants were told that if their thoughts drifted to the past or the future they should refocus on their breathing, allowing those with depression to accept moment-to-moment changes in attention.

Alderman, Along with Tracey Shors, PhD, a distinguished professor in the Department of Psychology and Center for Collaborative Neuroscience at Rutgers, and two other colleagues, found that the intervention enabled college students with major depressive disorder to not let problems or negative thoughts overwhelm them.

Study participants who complete the 8-week program reported fewer depressive symptoms and said they did not spend as much time worrying about negative situations taking place in their lives when compared with these factors at baseline.

“Behavioral and event-related potential indices of cognitive control were collected at baseline and follow-up during a modified flanker task,” write the authors. “Following MAP training, N2 and P3 component amplitudes increased relative to baseline, especially among individuals with [major depressive disorder]. These data indicate enhanced neural responses during the detection and resolution of conflicting stimuli.”

Shors added that “scientists have known for a while that both of these activities alone can help with depression. But this study suggests that when done together, there is a striking improvement in depressive symptoms along with increases in synchronized brain activity.”

The study team also provided MAP training to young mothers who had been homeless and were living in a residential treatment facility at baseline. The women exhibited severe depressive symptoms and elevated levels of anxiety at baseline also. Following the 8-week intervention, these women also reported decreased levels of depression and anxiety, increased motivation, and a greater ability to focus more positively on their lives.

“We know these therapies can be practiced over a lifetime and that they will be effective in improving mental and cognitive health,” said Alderman. “The good news is that this intervention can be practiced by anyone at any time and at no cost.”