Long-time runners are well-acquainted with the ever-changing nature of the human body. Physical fitness ebbs and flows with seasons and goals. We gain weight and lose muscle tone and then lose weight and gain muscle tone. We notice how easy bounding up a flight of stairs can feel when we are in great shape, as much as we are aware of how out of breath we become on that same staircase after we’ve fallen off the training horse for several months. While there are plenty of hurdles to starting and sticking to a running program, we know that our bodies change with time and training.
But what about our minds? Interestingly, while many of us subscribe to regimented training protocols to improve physical fitness, we don’t for our minds. We often assume that if we tend towards anxiety, negativity, anger, impatience or depressive thinking that there’s not much we can do other than develop healthy coping strategies (running often being an effective one). What the science of neuroplasticity is showing us, however, is that certain mental fitness training protocols can actually change the structure and function of our brains—helping to adjust our mental weather and the ways we move through the world. Perhaps best of all for us runners, by combining brain training with aerobic workouts, the mood-boosting effect becomes that much more powerful.
There are plenty of ways to train mental fitness depending on your end-goal, but one of the best approaches to improve mood and wellbeing is mindfulness. While the idea of mindfulness is off-putting to some and certainly comes along with its fair share of new age stereotypes, at its core, it is simply attention training. Focus on the present moment and every time you notice your mind has wandered to ruminating about the past or worrying about the future, gently redirect your attention back to what’s happening in the present. Do this again. And again. Ad infinitum.
It may sound tedious and silly, but neuroscientists are discovering that over time, redirecting your attention to the present moment is a whole lot like doing bicep curls in the gym or intervals on the track. An 8×400 workout may feel brutal in the early stages of training, but as your body adapts and fitness improves, it becomes more manageable. Similarly, the habitual ways we think, emote, and direct our attention all have the potential to forge new neural pathways, effectively rewiring the brain.
“Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change in a long-lasting fashion,” says Wake Forest School of Medicine neuroscientist Fadel Zeidan, PhD. “Mindfulness meditation trains your mind and brain to stabilize attention, and it increases your ability to regulate emotions by being in the present moment. Over time, in order to continuously facilitate those behaviors and types of experiences, the mind adapts to better stabilize them. What’s happening is your personality becomes more present-centered, better able to focus and better able to regulate emotions as a function of a potentially more efficient brain.”
On its own, running is a pretty effective way of improving mood—even potentially as effective as antidepressants—so why might runners want to consider mindfulness too? We know that aerobic exercise promotes neuroplasticity by building new connections in the brain, as well as triggering neurogenesis through the release of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF. It’s often referred to as “Miracle-Gro for the brain.” With that said, half of those new cells die within weeks of genesis, so finding a way to help them thrive is important.
Researchers at Rutgers University hypothesized that mindfulness meditation might be one way to do just that. To put their theory to the test, they recruited a group of participants, some of whom were depressed, and had them do 20 minutes of seated meditation, 10 minutes of walking meditation and 30 minutes of running two times a week. After eight weeks, they reported a 40 percent reduction in depressive symptoms, a decrease in ruminative thoughts, and enhanced synchronicity of brain activity, which simply means it boosted brain function and contributed to a greater sense of well-being.
“Mindfulness meditation and aerobic exercise make a nice combination, even over and above what it might be doing to neurogenesis in the hippocampus. It’s time efficient and seems to be satisfying to participants,” says Tracey Shorts, one of the lead researchers at the Center for Collaborative Neuroscience at Rutgers.
Importantly, mindfulness can be practiced in all sorts of settings, not just sitting in lotus position on a cliffside at sunset with pan flute ballads playing in the background. I have long been practicing this type of attention training on my runs—tuning into how I’m feeling physically by focusing on one region of the body at a time, noting my general mood in the moment, paying attention to my breath, and taking in the environment around me with all five senses. Not only has this led to more vivid and joyful workouts, research suggests that it likely results in positive changes in my brain.
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Of course there isn’t a silver bullet when it comes to dealing with low mood or diagnosed depression or anxiety. Running and meditation are tools that might help, but there are a long list of other options, including good nutrition, medication and therapy. What works for one might not for another. But if you’re already getting out the door and pounding the pavement each day, why not experiment with bringing intentional focus to the experience in the moment?
You can focus on the in-and-out of your breath, your footfall or something in your environment. This can be done for just a few minutes or your entire run and on a serene forest trail or busy urban sidewalk (always be sure to remain aware of your environment for safety). Not only will this help you steer away from negative, self-defeating thoughts—for example, “I suck at running” or “I’ll never make it up this hill”—research suggests it can boost confidence and get you in the zone, which can have a positive after-burn effect going into the rest of your day.