Is meditation better for you than exercise?
With new research hailing the benefits of mindfulness, Jonathan Wells asks experts to weigh up the pros and cons of brain training versus physical therapy and drugs
Which is better for your body: meditation or exercise? On the surface, it seems like an obvious answer — physical exercise can strengthen our muscles, bones and heart, and has been proven to promote the production of oxytocin and other ‘feel-good’ chemicals. Whilst meditation is, well, a fad. Right?
Wrong. Or, at least, possibly wrong. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association has suggested that mindfulness may be a better treatment for chronic back pain than other ordinary exercises.
Study leader Dr Daniel Cherkin revealed that “training the brain to respond differently to pain signals may be more effective, and last longer, than traditional physical therapy and medication”.
It’s not the first piece of scientific research to suggest that meditation has the edge over exercise. Researchers have long extolled the virtues of the relaxing practice, discovering links between mindfulness and a stronger immune system, revealing that deep-breathing techniques can strengthen your lungs and, five years ago, even claiming that meditation may be “stronger than morphine” for pain relief.
So, if you can manage to find a precious spare half hour every day, what should you be doing with this time? Is it more physically beneficial to hit the gym or sit quietly on the floor, cross-legged and clear-minded?
Two years ago, Dr Madhav Goyal, a professor at the prestigious Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, published a study that acknowledged the mental benefits of meditation, but claimed that the physiological advantages were incomparable to those actual exercise brings.
“We included 47 trials with 3,515 participants,” Goyal writes. “Mindfulness meditation programs had moderate evidence of improved anxiety, depression and pain, and low evidence of improved stress/distress and mental health–related quality of life.
However, Dr Goyal says he “found no evidence that meditation programmes were better than any active treatment — drugs, exercise and other behavioural therapies”.
Other studies — including the most recent one published in the Journal of the American Medical Association — have suggested otherwise.
Beth Shaw, founder of Mind Body Fitness and author of Yoga Fit, posits that meditation can indeed rival and, in some cases, surpass physical exercise in terms of its benefits.
“Meditation can stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system or the branch of your peripheral nervous system that helps your body return to a calm, relaxed state after the threat of danger has passed,” says Shaw.
“When this branch is activated, your body can naturally rejuvenate, repair, and rebuild itself.
“It also can clear your mind for better quality sleep, improve athletic performance by refining your ability to focus on a goal or situation, slow your respiration for longer, deeper breaths and boost your immune system by slowing the production of the stress hormone cortisol.
“Meditation is now commonly used to treat mental health disorders, addiction and everyday stress, as well as heal physical ailments and promote better sleep.”
Anne Grete Hersoug, an instructor in Acem Meditation and a clinical psychologist at the University of Oslo, also believes in the profound physical effects of meditation — but would not consider it an effective replacement for exercise.
“According to scientific studies, Acem Meditation has been found to have a profound physiological effect on the practising individual,” says Hersoug. “It allows the meditator to relax deeply, leaves them feeling more energised and is overall a refreshing experience — much like recharging one’s batteries.
“These physiological relaxation effects are measurable in terms of increased oxygen intake and decreased heart rate, and, thus, psychological exercise can benefit you physiologically,” she adds.
However, whilst Hersoug acknowledges the benefits meditation can have on your body, she believes that, first and foremost, mindfulness is for the mind. “Most of the physical benefits associated with deep relaxation and mindfulness come as a by-product of soothing mental stress,” Hersoug reveals.
“I would not make a comparison between meditation and physical exercise. Meditation cannot replace half an hour of exercise — and it is vastly different from fitness training.
“I’d rather say that we need to make time for both physical exercise and mental techniques.”