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Meditation’s benefits (without meditating)

One-on-one with Shaun Francis: Try aerobic exercise for mental clarity

Shaun Francis

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According to a recent study, somewhere around 8 percent of people in the United States use meditation as a complementary health approach. I am not one of them because, well, look, I’m just going to come right out and say it: I find meditating boring. The thought of sitting in a room somewhere, concentrating on my breathing, just fills me with anxiety about the 19 billion other things I could be doing.

Too bad for me, because mindfulness meditation has a lot of benefits.

The practice involves stepping back from the day-to-day bustle and attempting to still one’s consciousness. The mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and one of the pioneers of mindfulness-based stress reduction, describes it as paying attention to the moment in a way that is simultaneously accepting and non-judgmental.

A 2011 study out of Harvard Medical School found that eight weeks of a mindfulness-based stress reduction program increased the size of the parts of the brain that deal with learning, memory, and emotion regulation. Other studies have shown that mindfulness exercises can help people cope with stress and anxiety. Those who meditate tend to experience more happiness and an improved quality of life. Meditation has also been shown to help people deal with chronic pain.

One basic meditation technique is to concentrate on your breathing for a period of time, anywhere from a few minutes to an hour. Many apps are designed to provide guidance, and mindfulness coaches and meditation teachers are easily accessible in most major cities.

The benefits are so great that the founder of the Optimal Living Lab, Reva Seth, published a 2017 op-ed suggesting that the Canadian government create a program that encourages the general public to meditate—something not unlike ParticipACTION, the public health initiative that tries to sell people on the values of exercise. “It’s time for public-health officials, policy makers and the public to get behind a commitment to scaling up access to meditation,” she wrote.

I’m not arguing with Seth about the benefits of meditation. The problem, for me, is that I just can’t get around to doing it. What I can get behind is combining my meditation with exercise. I get on my bike or lace up my sneakers and head out for a run, and I lose myself in the exertion, the repetitive motion, and my music.

Dr. David Levy, the CEO of EHE in New York, does something similar. Every morning, his dogs get him up and he does one of three things: he goes for a 10K run, a long ride on his bicycle, or a swim. “Exercise gives me the opportunity, before the day begins, to have an hour of total mental clarity.”

Mindful meditation movement

Start by leaving your phone and electronic devices at home so that you’re immersed in the present during your session. The meditative state never happens immediately. You have to find a rhythm first. Once you’ve found your cadence, sink into it. Imagine that your lungs are bellows, and focus on nothing but your breathing. You’ll find that slowly your thoughts will still and your consciousness will almost dissolve.

The exercise doesn’t have to be limited to running, biking, or swimming. You can achieve the same effect while sculling on water, jumping rope in a gym, or even hitting a tennis ball against a wall.

One caution: if you’re going to try to achieve this zen state through exercise, rather than through restful breathing or yoga, you need to have built up your capacity for cardiorespiratory fitness to such an extent that you can run or cycle—or whatever the exercise may be—for a sustained period with comparatively little effort.

The good news is that whether you get your moment of peace from sitting motionless in a room or during a vigorous activity, the boost is the same. There’s a calm that lingers for the rest of the day. Irritation, anger, frustration—those states are slower to come on days when you’ve experienced a calm moment of mindful reflection.

So if meditation is one of those things you think is good in concept but for which you can never find the time, consider leaving your devices at home the next time you head out for a run or a bike ride. Focus on your breathing, establish a rhythm, and give yourself over to the moment. Before long, you’ll find that you’re sinking into a zen state that provides the benefits of mindful meditation without the inactivity.

Excerpted from Eat, Move, Think: The Path to a Healthier, Stronger, Happier You by Shaun Francis, in stores May 1, 2018, and published by Simon & Schuster.

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