Meditation and weight training would seem to have little in common. Meditation burns few calories and it’s a sedentary pursuit that lowers your stress level and your metabolism. In contrast, weight training boosts your metabolic rate and places stress on your body, a good kind of stress, but stress nevertheless. But, these differences may be why the two go so well together. Like yin and yang, weight training and meditation are the ideal match for long-term health and fitness. Here’s why.
Meditation Boosts Mindfulness
One of the benefits of meditation is that it makes you more mindful and mindfulness can enhance your performance when you lift. When you’re mindful, you’re more in touch with your body, including your thoughts, feelings, and motivations. You can apply this mindfulness to your training to more deeply focus on the movements your muscles make when you train. When you’re more attentive, you’re also more focused and it’s focus that helps you make the most out of every repetition and ensures that you use good form. You won’t get the full benefits of an exercise if you simply go through the motions.
The other well-known benefit of meditation is that it eases stress. The way it does this is by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, the “chill and relax” division. This is the portion of your nervous system that opposes the sympathetic or “fight or flight” component. When you do intense exercise, strength training, and heavy resistance training, you activate the 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, you want to turn off this response once a weight-training session is over. Meditation can help you do that.
The other hormone your adrenals produce in response to stress, including intense training, is cortisol. Cortisol helps mobilize energy stores and, when you’re low on glycogen and glucose, it even stimulates muscle breakdown. Cortisol also opposes the anabolic effects of testosterone and growth hormone. So, you don’t want cortisol around long after a workout is over as it interferes with muscle gains and suppresses your immune system as well.
One way to bring cortisol down after a workout is to consume a post-workout snack that contains carbohydrates and protein. Another is to rest and get a good night’s sleep. Finally, meditation provides an extra layer of defense against the sometimes harmful effects of cortisol. Studies show that mindfulness meditation lowers cortisol and helps dial back the stress response. In response, you experience better quality sleep, which is important for muscle growth and for overall health. Some studies even show that meditation subdues inflammation. That’s important since meditation is a driving force behind most chronic health problems, including cardiovascular disease, autoimmune diseases, and some types of cancer.
Meditation can help achieve a sense of calmness, mindfulness, and focus – and this can positively impact your strength training. So, how do you do it? Many people think they can’t meditate because their mind is too active and they can’t stop it. It takes practice but, over time, your mind will respond to meditation by becoming calmer. You’ll find that you feel calmer as well.
How to Meditate
To get the benefits of meditation, you actually 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 shift your focus away from meditation. If you meditate outside, if possible, choose a peaceful area, like a park away from the main road. It doesn’t have to be an area of complete silence but avoid noisy places with lots of distractions.
· 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. That’s helpful, in some cases, since your mind will begin to relax when you sit down in the 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.
· Now, 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 and ideas enter your mind. We’re so used to thinking and analyzing everything that these thoughts are bound to come. Acknowledge them without reacting 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.
· Don’t worry! As with anything, it becomes easier over time. Set aside 10 or 15 minutes a day to practice and watch how much easier it becomes.
Other Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation
Yes, mindfulness meditation can help your weight training sessions but it has other benefits as well. Studies show that mindfulness meditation can help you make better food choices and control portion sizes – but that’s not all. Studies show that mindfulness meditation 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.
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 train with weights. So, if you’ve never tried it, consider adding it to your daily schedule. You’ll find it improves many aspects of your life, especially if you lead a life filled with too many commitments and not enough time to relax.
J Med Assoc Thai. 2013 Jan;96 Suppl 1:S90-
Psychology Today. “Cortisol: Why “The Stress Hormone” Is Public Enemy No. 1”