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A new study from Rutgers University reports that meditation and aerobic exercise done consecutively can help reduce depression, rumination, and overwhelming negative thoughts. The combination of mental and physical (MAP) training through focused meditation and aerobic exercise is a relatively new concept and clinical intervention for major depressive disorder (MDD).

Depression is estimated to affect approximately 20 percent of the population at some point in their lives. Among other symptoms, the inability to focus your attention in positive ways is a hallmark of depression. Currently, the most common treatment for depression is psychotropic medications and talk therapy.

The researchers at Rutgers wanted to explore the neuroscience behind alternatives to current treatments that would allow individuals to acquire new cognitive skills so they could bounce back more quickly from stressful life events. The team found that learning how-to focus attention through meditation combined with the neurobiological benefits of aerobic exercise created a powerful double whammy for fighting depression.

Meditation and Aerobic Exercise Are a Drug-Free Alternative to Antidepressants

The researchers at Rutgers found that the combination of meditation and aerobic exercise done twice a week for only thirty minutes per session over eight weeks reduced the symptoms of depression by forty percent.

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

The February 2016 study, "MAP training: Combining Meditation and Aerobic Exercise Reduces Depression and Rumination While Enhancing Synchronized Brain Activity," was published in published in Translational Psychiatry. For this study, the researchers tested the efficacy of MAP training in improving symptoms of depression and rumination in individuals with and without MDD.

Fifty-two participants completed the 8-week intervention, which consisted of two sessions per week. Every participant in the study began with 30 minutes of focused-attention (FA) meditation directly followed by 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise.

Participants were told that if their thoughts drifted to the past or the future to simply refocus attention on their breathing. This classic method of focusing attention allows people to go with the flow of moment-to-moment changes in attention by gently returning one's attention to the process of breathing in and out.

Aerobic Exercise Stimulates Neurogenesis, Which Helps Combat Depression

A few days ago, I wrote a Psychology Today blog post, "More Proof That Aerobic Exercise Can Make Your Brain Bigger," based on a new study from Finland confirming that sustained aerobic exercise can increase the birth of new neurons (neurogenesis) in the hippocampus. The findings of the Finnish study dovetail perfectly with new MAP study released from Rutgers yesterday.

Tracey Shors, co-author and professor in the Department of Psychology and Center for Collaborative Neuroscience at Rutgers, studies the neurogenesis of new brain cells in the hippocampus. Shors points out that although neurogenesis can't be easily monitored in humans, scientists have shown in animal models that aerobic exercise increases the number of new neurons and that putting conscious effort into learning keeps these cells alive.

In their latest study, Alderman, Shors, et al. explain how they arrived at the decision to research the combination of meditation and aerobic exercise used for MAP,
"In animal models, newly generated neurons in the dentate gyrus are especially responsive to environmental conditions that humans often experience. For example, stressful life events tend to decrease neurogenesis, whereas antidepressants can increase cell production.

These findings, among others, led to a neurogenesis hypothesis of depression, which proposes that depression is accompanied by a loss of new granule neurons, while a renewal of these same cells can reverse depressive symptomatology. Antidepressants are not the only depression-related therapies known to increase neurogenesis. Most notably, aerobic exercise can greatly increase the number of cells that are produced in the hippocampus. Animals given the opportunity to run on a daily basis can produce nearly twice as many new cells as sedentary controls.

Focused-attention (FA) meditation was selected as the mental training component because it requires significant mental effort to perform and each session of practice represents a new learning opportunity. The physical training component consists of aerobic exercise, which has been shown to be beneficial for brain structure and function as well as for promoting overall physical and mental health.

Theoretically, the combination of aerobic exercise and FA meditation may increase the number of newborn cells in the hippocampus and rescue these newly generated cells, which may be integrated into the brain circuitry."
Of all the men and women in the Rutgers study who completed the eight-week program—22 suffering with depression and 30 mentally healthy students—everybody reported fewer depressive symptoms. All 52 participants also said that they didn't spend as much time worrying or ruminating about negative situations in their lives as they did before the study began.

Conclusion: Aerobic Exercise and Meditation Are Universally Accessible and Free

The researchers conclude that a combination of mental and physical training (MAP) enabled students with major depressive disorder not to let problems or negative thoughts overwhelm them. Shors summed up the importance of these findings, "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."

During the course of this study, the researchers at Rutgers also provided MAP training to young mothers who were living at a residential treatment facility after having been homeless. At the beginning of the intervention, all of the young mothers exhibited severe depressive symptoms and elevated anxietylevels . . . by the end of eight weeks of MAP training, the researchers reported that their depression and anxiety had eased. The combination of meditation and aerobic exercise also made the young mothers living in a residential treatment facility more motivated, and able to focus more positively on improving their lives.

As a public health advocate, I'm always looking for non-pharmacological interventions that are universally accessible and inexpensive. The combination of 30 minutes of meditation and 30 minutes of aerobic exercise appears to be a potent double whammy for combating depression, rumination, and negative thinking. Relatively small amounts of MAP training have the power to dramatically improve well-being for people from all walks of life.

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