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For Improved Mental Health, Add Meditation to Exercise

New research shows combining mindfulness and movement can improve depression and anxiety, among other mental health challenges

By Lisa B. Samalonis

At the beginning of every slow flow yoga class I take, there is a seven- to nine-minute mediation that helps everyone "arrive on the mat" and "center themselves." Sitting still and being mindful of the array of thoughts racing through the brain and then letting them go takes some getting used to. But it is surprising how quickly I have come to enjoy this part of class. After all, it's just a few minutes.

A woman meditating in her backyard. Next Avenue
Exercise and meditation keep our brains healthy and our memories sharp, staving off otherwise normal age-related cognitive decline.  |  Credit: Getty

New research in the Journal of Mental Health and Physical Activity confirms that combining exercise with mindfulness yields improvements in mental health. The systematic review – which included evidence-based findings from 35 trials — found combining interventions is effective for improving mental health and wellbeing (including depression, stress, anxiety, quality of life, well-being, PTSD and self-rated health) possibly more so than either approach alone. 

"Exercise, even in short bursts and at light intensities, is incredibly beneficial for our physical and mental health."

The Mindfulness Approach

"Exercise, even in short bursts and at light intensities, is incredibly beneficial for our physical and mental health. Mindfulness training or other forms of meditation can also dramatically improve our wellbeing, focus, and reduce stress. However, our research shows that people who do both of these activities see the best results for their mental health," explained co-author of the study, Masha Remskar, Economic and Social Research Council Doctoral Researcher, Department for Health at University of Bath, in Bath, England, United Kingdom.

"We also know that both activities help us keep our brains healthy and our memories sharp, staving off otherwise normal age-related cognitive decline. Therefore, people over 50 can benefit immensely from regularly moving their bodies, as well as challenging their brains by engaging in mindfulness meditation," she said.

Adding mindfulness meditation could unlock the positive benefits exercise can bring. "Mindfulness is an approach that can help us "train up" the psychological strengths we need to exercise and be more in tune with our bodies. For example, it can boost our motivation, make exercising more interesting and help us recognize its benefits, all of which will keep us coming back to exercising time and time again," Remskar said.

"This may be because becoming more mindful prompts us to think differently about our lifestyle, makes us more accepting and less judgmental of our own shortcomings, which can help to build lasting healthy habits," she added.

Get Started and Keep Going

Walking is one of the best ways to start pairing meditation with being active. "Simply tune into your senses, really notice your environment, the sensations, sounds and smells around you. Once this feels familiar, you can try a running meditation or another type of activity – as long as you are safe to focus on yourself and sensations (e.g., not in traffic), any exercise will do. What matters is that you enjoy the activity and really tune into your experience. Of course, we can also move our bodies and train our minds through meditation separately," Remskar added.

"Mindfulness experts generally recommend daily practice; and more is better."

For beginners, Remskar's recommends short bursts of 10-minute activity, which can make a big difference. The research recommends starting small, perhaps with a light activity and only practicing meditation for a few minutes. "As we get more accustomed to both activities, we can increase the duration and frequency – it is great if we manage to find some time to move our bodies at least 3 times per week, or even every day," she said.

Colleen Marshall, Vice President of Clinical Care for Two Chairs, agrees that getting started is key. "Doing something is better than doing nothing and patients should pick what works best for their needs and lifestyle and overall wellness goals. With any exercise program, it is best to discuss it with your doctor who knows the state of your physical abilities and health, and what exercise program is best for you," noted Marshall.


She added that evidence suggests that aerobic or cardio exercise like jogging, walking, swimming, dancing and cycling reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression; meditation and mindfulness practices also reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. "Mindfulness experts generally recommend daily practice; and more is better. We recommend starting slow and building up. Consistency is more important than amount of time, so it's important to find something that is sustainable for their life," said Marshall.

Remskar agree that with both mindfulness and exercise, consistency is crucial. "If we miss a session or fall short of expectations, mindfulness teaches us to note this shortcoming, but not judge ourselves for it. When this happens, the best thing we can do for our health is to show up again next time and do our best then. Chasing perfection is hardly conducive to a long-lasting habit, whereas continuing to show up and rewarding progress along the way certainly are."

Overcoming Hesitancy

Although meditation is a buzzword right now, many people are still intimidated by the practice. However, it doesn't need to be complicated and the effort is worth it.

"Mindfulness deepens self-awareness, cultivates emotional regulation, and combats negativity that can creep in with age."

Echo Wang, founder of Yoga Kawa, explains that for many individuals over 50, particularly with stress, anxiety and age-related challenges, combining meditation and exercise can be powerful. She explained that gentle yoga poses release endorphins while mindful breathing eases worries. Or, a brisk walk followed by quiet meditation can foster emotional clarity and self-compassion.

"Both practices work independently, but together, they become a potent force. Exercise can combat stress, boost cognitive function, and even foster social connection through group activities. Mindfulness deepens self-awareness, cultivates emotional regulation, and combats negativity that can creep in with age," she said.

Wang suggests people start with activities they enjoy, like walking or swimming, and gradually increase intensity. For meditation, begin with short sessions, exploring guided meditations or mindful breathing even if it is for 5 minutes of mindful movement followed by 5 minutes of quiet reflection. "Above all, listen to your body and enjoy the journey," she added.

"To effectively tackle these issues, it's essential to uphold both physical and mental health."

Guide meditations and instruction for mindful breathing of varying length (from 3 minutes on up) are available through apps, such a FitOn (free), Calm and Headspace, as well YouTube, or in-person instructor sessions at a studio or gym.

Rod Mitchell, a registered psychologist who specializes in emotional well-being, noted that individuals over 50 frequently encounter distinct challenges, including navigating life transitions and managing chronic health conditions. "To effectively tackle these issues, it's essential to uphold both physical and mental health," he said.

Mitchell encourages blending mindfulness with everyday physical exercise — such as mindful walking, strength training, or gardening — to create an opportunity to gain the combined benefits of both activities. "This can have a profound impact on our overall well-being," he said.

For example, try incorporating these tips and begin with 20-minute sessions aiming for at least three mindful exercise sessions per week.

  • Mindful strength training: Before lifting weights or using resistance bands, set an intention for your session. This could be as simple as thinking, “I am building strength mindfully.” With each lift, focus on your muscles’ movements and sensations. Be aware of your form and breathing. Use rest periods to check in with your body, acknowledging how it feels at that moment, Mitchell said.
  • Mindful gardening: Before beginning, take a moment to appreciate your garden space. As you dig, plant or water, fully immerse yourself in the task. Notice the feel of the soil, the plants’ textures and the rhythm of your actions. After gardening, reflect on the process and the growth you’re nurturing, both in the garden and within yourself.

Reach Out for Support

In addition to consulting your primary care physician, other professionals can lend support. "Therapy and therapists can help you find the right practices that work for you to help you achieve your overall wellness goals," Marshall said.

Lisa B. Samalonis
Lisa B. Samalonis is a writer and editor based in New Jersey. She writes about health, parenting, books and personal finance. Read More
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