Mindfulness meditation and weight training, at first glance, would seem to have little in common. After all, meditation is a sedentary pursuit that burns few calories and seemingly does little to change your physique. On the plus side, a little Zen is a stress buster – and who doesn’t have a little stress in their life? In contrast to the moments of bliss you experience during meditation, weight training boosts your metabolic rate and places stress on your body. But, these differences may be why the two go so well together. Like yin and yang, weight training and meditation complement each other perfectly. Here’s why.
Meditation Boosts Mindfulness
One of the benefits of meditation is that it makes you more mindful. Mindfulness is important not just for making you more aware of your environment and how you interact with it, it can enhance your performance when you lift. How so?
When you’re mindful, you’re more in touch with your body. You can apply this mindfulness to your training to more deeply focus on the movements your muscles make when you train. When you tap into the power of mindfulness, you’re also more focused and it’s focus that helps you make the most of every repetition and ensures that you use good form. In other words, you can apply some of the principles of meditation to weight training.
The other well-known benefit of meditation is that it eases stress. The way it does this is by activating your parasympathetic nervous system, the “chill and relax” portion that opposes the more rambunctious sympathetic or “fight or flight” component. When you do intense exercise, strength training, and heavy resistance training, you activate your fight or flight response and your adrenals pump out hormones like cortisol and adrenalin. Adrenalin is what hypes you up, which is important when you train. However, it’s best to turn off this response once a weight-training session is over. A post-workout meditation session can help you do that.
The other hormone your adrenals produce in response to stress, including intense exercise training, is cortisol. Cortisol helps mobilize energy stores and, when you’re low on glycogen and glucose, it stimulates muscle breakdown. Cortisol also opposes the anabolic effects of testosterone and growth hormone. So, you don’t want a lot of cortisol around after a workout is over. Research shows that meditating helps lower cortisol. In one study, medical students had significantly lower levels of cortisol after a mindfulness meditation session relative to before. They also had a baseline lower cortisol level after four days of mindfulness meditation therapy.
One post-workout habit that reduces cortisol after a workout is a post-workout snack that contains carbohydrates and protein. When you replenish glucose and glycogen, cortisol drops, as you’re supplying your body’s glucose needs. The other is to rest and get a good night’s sleep. However, meditation provides an extra layer of defense against cortisol. Studies show mindfulness meditation reduces cortisol and helps dial back the stress response. In turn, you experience better quality sleep, which is important for muscle growth and for overall health. Some studies even show that meditation subdues inflammation as well.
How to Meditate
To get the benefits of meditation, you have to do it and it takes practice to get it right. Here’s how to get started:
Choose a peaceful room or an outdoor area that’s free of distractions. Remove all electronic devices that might compete for your focus. If you meditate outside, if possible, choose a peaceful area, like a park away from the main road.
Sit down on a comfy exercise mat and cross your legs into a position that feels comfortable. Some people even invest in a special, meditation chair. Alternatively, you can lie down on the mat. If you sit, rest your hands comfortably on your lap with your palms facing up.
Set an alarm for 15 to 20 minutes
Close your eyes and begin focusing only on your breath as you slowly breathe in and out. Your breathing should be natural, not forced.
As you breathe, you may notice distracting thoughts enter your mind. We’re so used to thinking and analyzing everything that these thoughts are bound to intrude. Acknowledge them and simply shift your focus back to your breathing.
At first, it will be difficult to ignore distracting thoughts, but it becomes easier with time and practice. You’ll learn to acknowledge the distractions but then shift your focus back to your breath.
Other Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation
Studies show that mindfulness meditation can help you make better food choices and control portion sizes – but that’s not all. Mindfulness meditation also reduces anxiety, depression, and the tendency to ruminate. It even improves sleep patterns – and, as you know, sleep is important for muscle repair and the building of new muscle tissue after a workout. So, mindfulness meditation offers benefits that go beyond building muscle and strength.
Studies also show that meditation modestly lowers systolic and diastolic blood pressure. In fact, several well-conducted meta-analyses demonstrate blood pressure lowering with the practice of meditation. Some research even shows a link between meditation and reduced levels of inflammation. That’s important since so many chronic health problems are fueled by inflammation, including autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, and some forms of cancer. Vigorous exercise training can up the body’s inflammatory response temporarily, and meditation can help bring it down. Therefore, meditation is beneficial regardless of the type of training you do.
The Bottom Line
Meditation is almost like strength training for the mind and the benefits you gain will also boost your physical performance when you weight train. So, after doing a vigorous workout and successfully cooling down, set aside 5 or 10 minutes minimum to meditate and let your mind and body recover. Also, use the principles of mindfulness when you lift by really focusing in on the movements you’re doing and use all of your senses to do so. By doing this, you’ll discover that your training improves, and you have a more positive attitude toward exercise as well. Meditation and weight training are a good combo! Use them to your advantage.
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New Scientist. “Mindfulness and meditation dampen down inflammation genes”