The importance of mindfulness, meditation and fitness. Lee Hawker-Lecesne looks at how as a nation we are witnessing an exponential growth of mental health problems and how to challenge anxiety, depression, and obesity through mindfulness, meditation and mental/physical fitness
Physical activity and your mental health
Lifestyle modifications such as increased physical fitness can assume great importance in individuals battling mental health issues, helping to improve their mental fitness. An essential component of lifestyle modification is exercise.
Fitness and mental health - how it works
Look to improve your physical fitness through aerobic exercise:
• Somatic movement
In a post-Covid age, these improvements in mood have never been more important and have been proven to reduce anxiety and depression. One hour of exercise of moderate intensity for four days a week, is sufficient for these health benefits. Moreover, these 60 minutes need not be continuous; three 20-minute fitness sessions are believed to be as equally useful as one 60-minute individual session.
Fitness quite simply improves mental health; exercise-induced increases in blood circulation to the brain influences the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and, thus, the physiologic reactivity to stress. This physiologic influence is mediated by the communication of the HPA axis with several regions of the brain, including the limbic system, which controls motivation and mood; the amygdala, which generates fear in response to stress; and the hippocampus, which plays an important part in memory formation as well as in mood and motivation.
Health benefits of regular exercise include the following:
• Improved sleep
• Better endurance
• Stress relief
• Improvement in mood
• Increased interest in sex
• Increased energy and stamina
• Reduced tiredness that can increase mental alertness
• Weight reduction
• Reduced cholesterol and improved cardiovascular fitness
Mental conditioning and mindfulness
Don’t underestimate the importance of mental conditioning — and one of the best ways to do this is to meditate, or to practice mindfulness. The millennia-old practice of mindfulness meditation is not just for Buddhists. Recent clinical research studies have shown that it has very good clinical effectiveness in the treatment of depression, anxiety, and stress. It can significantly help reduce symptoms and promote healthier thought patterns for those in early recovery from trauma.
Mindfulness is now very popular and is used widely outside of the medical field – by businesspeople, athletes and anyone who desires to increase their mental or physical health and to improve their overall peak performance. Start with short periods of 10 minutes of practice a day. As you practice regularly, it becomes easier to keep the attention focused on breathing. Eventually, awareness of the breath can be extended into awareness of thoughts, feelings, and actions. The evidence base for mindfulness in the treatment of mental health problems is now well established.
- A universal human capacity that can foster clear thinking and open heartedness. When applied to meditation practice, it requires no religious or cultural belief system.
- An intentional, accepting, and non-judgemental focus of one's attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment. It can be learned through training in meditational practices.
- A form of non-judgemental, present-moment awareness, in which each thought, feeling or sensation that arises is acknowledged and accepted as it is.
- A means of paying attention in a particular way – on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally.
As well as reducing depression and anxiety, research additionally supports the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation in reducing trauma symptoms as well as cravings for substances or behaviours that people may have become addicted to. Incorporating mindfulness into physical fitness helps individuals to develop not only their physical health but also their mental wellbeing. Heightened levels of awareness, increased self-discipline, social inclusion, improvements in mood and camaraderie are all benefits of practicing mindfulness.
Meditation may benefit both your physical fitness and lifestyle through:
Focus: This is frequently cited as the key to success. Meditation helps to increase levels of focus, attention, and concentration.
Stress reduction: The most widespread application of meditation in modern life is stress reduction. Stress is something of a double-edged sword — an appropriate amount of stress can motivate a person to train harder to gain a competitive edge. Conversely though, too much stress can cause anxiety and regular stress can cause harm to a person’s physical health. Prolonged stress has been evidenced to cause a multitude of health problems such as gastritis, autoimmune diseases, ulcers and even heart disease.
Anger management: Meditation practice increases awareness and can help you keep your temper in check before it even gets a chance to flare up.
Improved sleep quality: Muscles rebuild themselves and grow when the body is at rest. As an adult, we know that you need a recommended 6-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep every day. Adequate sleep is vital for muscle repair and if you are not resting enough, it’s hard to get stronger. Meditation calms the mind and improves the quality of sleep — and the better your quality of sleep, the faster your recovery time.
Your mind is the most powerful weapon you possess in overcoming the rigours of everyday life. When you dedicate a little extra effort to mental training regularly, the benefits will extend into a broad range of other aspects of your life.
Lee Hawker-Lecesne MBPsS is lead therapist and addiction counsellor at The Cabin (thecabin.com)