Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Can't I Just Swim Laps?

When I went to school it was accepted that after an early period of development the brain was fixed and unchanging.  Brain cells, and brain function, that were lost were gone.  Cognition was static.  Outcomes in the treatment of serious mental illness, Parkinsons, and dementia were poor.  Today, science has shown us that none of those assumptions are true.  Neuroplasticity, or changes in the brain's cortical matter, is accepted and proven.  This can occur at any point in one's life.  Changes in the brain that can lead to improved behavior, mood regulation, and cognition happen often.  Even the atrophy in an aging brain can be reversed, and damaged brains can re-learn and heal.  Focused attention exercises such as meditation are very successful routes to neurogenesis.  Learning new skills is effective as well.  Another proven method is aerobic exercise.

An analysis undertaken by Drs. Colcombe and Kramer at the University of Illinois of 18 studies of the positive effects of exercise on the brain shows that aerobic exercise three days a week, for 30 to 60 minutes each day, will promote neuroplasticity.  The exercise does not have to be overly intense, either.  Brisk walking is as effective as more strenuous forms of exercise in changing the brain.  Another study from Georg-August University in Germany indicates that aerobic exercise can contribute to the positive regulation of schizophrenia.  Other psychiatric illnesses have shown positive responses to exercise as well.  So in addition to the obvious health benefits of exercise, working out can help us to successfully manage mental illness.

Combining mindfulness practice with physical exercise can be doubly effective.  Many people that I speak with about the effects of mindfulness practice, or focused attention, are unable to find the time to meditate or have been unsuccessful in sitting practice.  However, they may likely find great benefit in combining focused attention with aerobic exercise.  In meditation we often focus on the breath and release thoughts that pull us away from the present moment. During exercise we can do the same.  As a matter of fact, placing our attention on the breath may not only make exercise a more meditative experience, it may improve our performance during the exercise.  All that is required is a focus on the activity without unnecessary distractions. No gym or fancy equipment is necessary.  Actually, the more solitary the activity and the less equipment required, the more likely one can make it a meditative experience.

While the opportunity to work with the breath and release thoughts is more limited during exercise than in seated meditation (one swimming must be conscious of the wall, a runner or walker must be aware of traffic, reps must be noted during calisthenics or weight training), we can still let go of plans and regrets, hopes and fears, as we expend physical effort.  And even without the addition of meditative practice, the benefits to the brain of the aerobic exercise itself are significant.

So get up and move around.  Mindfulness is possible in all we undertake each day.  Mindful exercise is a great place to start.

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