This (cheap and effective) technique reduced depressive symptoms by 40 percent in only two months.

By Liz Steelman and Maggie Seaver
Updated April 30, 2020
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Study Says Meditation and Exercise Can Help Depression: woman looking out a window
Credit: Getty Images/Westend61

Extensive research has found that meditation and regular exercise, respectively, can be beneficial for mental health issues like depression and anxiety. But, according to a small 2016 study from Rutgers University, when practiced in tandem—in a twice-a-week regime—both exercise and meditation might be even more beneficial than the sum of their parts, especially for those who struggle with depression.

For the study, originally published in Translational Psychiatry, researchers set out to understand how meditation and exercise would affect depression symptoms for 22 participants with clinical depression and 30 participants who were mentally healthy. 

Tracey Shors, professor in the Department of Psychology and Center for Collaborative Neuroscience in the School of Arts and Sciences, knew from animal studies in her lab that aerobic exercise can increase new brain cell production, while "effortful learning keeps a significant number of those cells alive." The main goal for this human study, led by Brandon Alderman, assistant professor in the Department of Exercise Science, was to help people "acquire new skills so that they can learn to recover from stressful life events."

Over an eight-week period, each participant completed a mental and physical (MAP) behavioral therapy regimen two times per week. This MAP routine consisted of 30 minutes of focused attention meditation, where subjects were directed to refocus on their breath if their minds started to worry or wander toward the past or the future. After meditating, they participated in 30 minutes of aerobic exercise. At the end of the study, participants reported 40 percent fewer depressive systems and less negative thoughts and overall worrying.

"We know these therapies can be practiced over a lifetime and that they will be effective in improving mental and cognitive health," Brandon Alderman, assistant professor at Rutgers University and lead study author, says in a statement in Science Daily. "The good news is that this intervention can be practiced by anyone at any time and at no cost."

It does take practice and self-discipline, but if you're looking for a natural and cost-effective way to boost your ability to manage stress, control anxious thoughts, and stay focused in the present, a combo of mindfulness meditation followed by a good sweat session is a great option.

Stressed and anxious in the middle of a workday? Here are ways to incorporate mindfulness techniques and stay focused.