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Meditation: Push-Ups for the Brain

Should we be recommending meditation training to shape and tone the brain?

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Many mind-body movement and wellness professionals have discovered the power of meditation and are introducing it to clients. One experience that particularly stands out in my teaching career occurred when I was leading a walking meditation.

A participant showed up but told me she was concerned because pain typically prevented her from walking more than a few blocks. I assured her she should do only what she felt comfortable with and could turn back at any time. We then proceeded to walk, moving with intention and grace, and incorporating breathing and sensory exercises to cultivate mindful attention to the present. As we completed the 45-minute session with standing stretches and a brief silence, the hesitant participant beamed at me warmly with tears in her eyes and said, “I absolutely cannot believe that I did this. It’s the first time I’ve walked this far in years. Thank you, thank you, thank you.” But it wasn’t me that she should have been thanking; it was her ability to tap into her inner resources to accomplish what she already knew how to do. This is the power of meditation.

Meditation is one of the top six most commonly used therapies from complementary and alternative medicine (Barnes, Bloom & Nahin 2008). Over 20 million American adults (9.4% of the population) meditated in 2006, according to a national government survey conducted in 2007. In those same 12 months, 1% of America’s children—725,000 of them—also meditated. People are meditating to promote overall wellness and also to cope with anxiety, pain, depression, stress, insomnia, and physical or emotional symptoms associated with chronic illnesses such as heart disease, cancer and HIV/AIDS (NCCAM 2010).

Studies are validating the benefits of meditation, exploring the impact of different styles and starting to tease out which methods may be most helpful to which individuals, while scientists continue to identify structural changes in the brains of people who meditate. Will we discover that meditation is the ultimate mind-body exercise?

Health Benefits of Meditation

A growing body of research evidence is supporting the claim that meditation is good for our health. With benefits ranging from fewer colds to pain management, meditation seems to allow people to cultivate a sense of clarity and calm that can permeate all aspects of life and that improves with practice.

The following are some of the many beneficial effects that scientists have identified in studies:

  • Stronger immune system. Meditators experienced fewer winter colds and flus (Barrett et al. 2012) and produced more antibodies in response to a flu vaccine (Davidson et al. 2003) than those who did not meditate.

  • Enhanced attention. After 3 months of meditation training, subjects had better attention and used their resources more efficiently (Slagter et al. 2007).

  • Lower blood pressure and reduced risk of heart disease. Transcendental meditation lowered blood pressure among African Americans with heart disease and was associated with a 43% reduction in risk of death, heart attack and stroke (Schneider et al. 2009).

  • Less anxiety and depression. A research review found that both Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy had broad applications for people with depression and anxiety (Marchand 2012).

  • Increased feelings of compassion and empathy. Mindfulness training helped to increase self-compassion and empathy in people with mood disorders (Farb, Anderson & Segal 2012).

  • Fewer binge episodes. A group of women who practiced mindfulness meditation for 6 weeks cut their binge eating episodes by half after experiencing meditation (Kristiller & Hallett 1999).

  • Lower blood sugar. Patients with metabolic syndrome lowered blood pressure and blood sugar and improved insulin regulation after practicing transcendental meditation for 16 weeks (Paul-Labrador et al. 2006).

  • Improved sleep. A literature review found that consistent meditators using a variety of meditation styles experienced better sleep quality than people who did not meditate (Nagendra, Maruthai & Kutty 2012).

  • Better pain management. The same literature review showed that both MBSR and Zen meditation helped people with pain management (Nagendra, Maruthai & Kutty 2012). In another study, expert meditators felt the same intensity of pain as novices, but experienced less unpleasantness (Lutz et al. 2012).

Changes in the Brain

Researchers are using modern technology to explore how meditation is able to provide these (and other) benefits. Findings confirm that meditation practice creates structural changes in the brain, which is significant, because neuroscientists used to think the brain’s development reached a peak in adulthood and then declined with age. Research is now showing that how we use the brain impacts its development and function (just as how we use the body affects its health and function).

The structural changes in the brain that occur with meditation are associated with improved functionality: enhanced concentration, better ability to learn and remember, more ability to tolerate pain and less emotional reactivity toward external stimuli. In multiple studies, people who meditate have better attention, concentration, emotion regulation, pain tolerance and memory than those who do not.

See the Web Extra for specific research findings on how meditation changes the brain.

The Fountain of Youth?

Scientists will continue to demystify the brain’s workings and hypothesize ways to improve the functional health of the brain. Forms of meditation may become a staple in healthcare providers’ array of complementary practices for people trying to cope with chronic diseases or simply wanting to improve stress management in their lives. Meditating is considered safe for healthy people. Medical experts caution, however, that there have been rare reports of meditation causing or worsening symptoms in people with certain psychiatric disorders; this issue has not been fully researched (NCCAM 2010). People with existing mental or physical health conditions should begin a meditation practice in consultation with their healthcare provider. And meditation instructors should evaluate and monitor the suitability of any practices they recommend to clients.

New lines of research show that meditation may lead to biological changes that decrease the inflammation response of the immune system on a cellular level and can contribute to looking and feeling younger. Two separate studies of meditation, one involving the practice of a Kirtan Kriya meditation from kundalini yoga and the other involving qigong practice, a moving meditation, both identified improved telomerase activity, which is linked to cellular health (Black et al. 2012; Ho et al. 2012).

“Telomerase is an important enzyme that protects us from aging by guarding the shortening of telomeres during cell division,” said study author Rainbow T. Ho, director of the Centre on Behavioral Health at the University of Hong Kong. This reduction in inflammation may be related to optimizing health and slowing damage from the aging process.


From ancient times, meditation has been a self-realization tool that can lead to inner peace, clarity and, ultimately, spiritual awakening. In the words of Master Ekai of China (1183–1260), “The great path has no gates; thousands of roads enter it. When one passes through this gateless gate, he walks freely between heaven and earth.” Perhaps as we continue to travel this path toward greater understanding of mind and body health through the study and practice of meditation, we will find the keys to ultimate integration of body, mind and spirit.

Web Extra!

To learn more about how meditation changes the structure of the brain, visit www.ideafit.com/meditation-brain.

From Zen to Mantra: Varieties of Meditation Styles

Research suggests that there is no one “best” way to meditate. Rather, the best style of meditation for any individual is the one he or she finds easiest and most enjoyable (Burke 2012). Meditation researcher Adam Burke, PhD, of San Francisco State University notes that if people do not find a method that suits their individual preferences, the risk is that they will stop practicing before realizing meditation’s many benefits. Here’s a sampler of some of the more prevalent practices:

Mindfulness (Vipassana). Popularized by Jon Kabat-Zinn in his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program and influenced by Theravada Buddhism, MBSR involves observation through paying particular attention in the present moment, without judgment (Kabat-Zinn 1994).

Mantra. From the yoga tradition, this method uses mental repetition of a phrase, word or sound, often coordinated with the breath. Mantra practice requires singular focus on an object of attention.

Focused-Attention or Concentration. This form also requires singular focus on an object of attention, but a mantra is not necessarily included. The object can be one of many things: a lit candle, for example, or just the breath.

Zen. From Zen Buddhism, this approach uses conscious awareness of momentary experience to lead to a generalized “openness” or “empty mind”—a totality of being “at one” with the present moment without concentrating on any specific object or sensation.

Loving Kindness (Metta). Another Buddhist practice, this involves focusing on self and others with unconditional love. From this singular focus, the intent is to expand feelings of love and compassion to embrace all beings and to wish them to be free from suffering and all of its causes.

Get Started With Your Own Meditation Practice

Diksha McCord, director of meditation teacher training at The Expanding Light Retreat in Nevada City, California, offers the following practical tips on how to begin a meditation practice:

  • Create a dedicated space. A small room or closet is ideal, but if this is not possible, create a quiet area in your home and return there each time you practice.
  • Set a consistent time. Choose a regular time—such as dawn, noon or dusk—and try to practice daily.
  • Ensure quiet. To sharpen your mental focus, wear headphones or earplugs if sounds are distracting.
  • Sit with good posture. Sit upright, with spine erect and body relaxed, and place your hands, palms up, on the thighs at the junction of the thighs and abdomen.
  • Be comfortable. Use pillows and cushions as necessary. Sit in a chair if it’s more comfortable. Place a pillow across your thighs if needed as a place to rest your hands. Experiment with different positions (including different hand positions) to find what works for you. McCord emphasizes that what matters is not how you look, but how you feel.
  • Start gradually. Start with as little as 5 minutes and increase your sitting time in increments of 5 minutes. Work up to 30 minutes, twice daily, if possible. Let enjoyment be your guide.
Meditation Changes the Brain

In the past decade, researchers have been using modern technology to study how meditation affects the structure of the brain. They have found that between controls and meditators, there are differences in both gray matter (tissue containing neuronal cell bodies), and white matter (the connective tissue between regions of the brain).

While brain research is still a young field of study, these findings are important because they illustrate the brain’s plasticity and indicate that we may be able to prevent declines in brain function that were previously thought to be an inevitable part of aging.

Gray Matter. Compared with controls, people who meditate regularly have more gray matter [neurons and capillaries] in parts of the brain that are responsible for attention and for awareness of subjective internal states. Scientists discovered that experienced mindfulness meditators had more cortical thickness in the prefrontal cortex, especially in the right anterior insula–regions associated with attention, inner awareness and sensory processing (Lazar et al. 2005). Zen experts were found to have a thicker anterior cingulate cortex, a brain region related to pain sensitivity (Grant et al. 2010).

In a study conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital in Charlestown, Massachusetts, researchers found that participation in a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for 8 weeks was associated with increases in gray-matter density of the brain in areas involved in learning and memory, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and the ability to gain perspective (Holzel et al. 2010).

Lead study author Britta K. Holzel, PhD, noted that while it may be possible for new brain cells to develop, a change in existing cells seemed the more likely explanation for the improvements. She said, “It could even be a change in the supporting tissue (glia) and not in the neurons. Hopefully, future research will give us a better understanding of it.”

White Matter. New research suggests that meditation training not only results in denser gray matter in different brain regions; it also leads to more white matter [connective tissue]–an effect that improves the efficiency with which parts of the brain communicate with each other. Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, found evidence to suggest that people who meditate have stronger connections between brain regions (Luders et al. 2011).

“Our results suggest that long-term meditators have white-matter fibers that are either more numerous, more dense or more insulated throughout the brain,” said Luders. “We also found that the normal age-related decline of white-matter tissue is considerably reduced in active meditation practitioners.”

Scientists at the University of Oregon in Eugene identified changes in the structural efficiency of white matter in the brain as a result of participation in integrative body-mind training, a method of meditation adapted from traditional Chinese medicine (Tang et al. 2012). In this study, after 1 month or only 11 hours of practice, the brains of novice meditators showed increases in both axon density and myelin formation. Study authors concluded that, “this dynamic pattern of white matter change involving the [anterior cingulate cortex], a part of the brain network related to self-regulation, could provide a means for intervention to improve or prevent mental disorders.”

Researchers have not yet identified the mechanisms to explain why meditators have more brain tissue. Luders said, “It is possible that meditators might have brains that are fundamentally different to begin with. For example, a particular brain anatomy may have drawn an individual to meditation or helped maintain an ongoing practice–meaning that the enhanced fiber connectivity in meditators constitutes a predisposition towards meditation, rather than being the consequence of the practice.”

More research is needed, especially longitudinal studies to explore causal mechanisms and to distinguish the relative contributions of genetics from the impact of meditation practice.


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Black, D.S., et al. 2012. Yogic meditation reverses Nf-kB and IRF-related transcriptome dynamics in leukocytes of family dementia caregivers in a randomized controlled trial. Psychoneuroimmunology. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2012.06.011.
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Shirley Archer-Eichenberger, JD, MA

Shirley Archer, JD, MA, is an internationally acknowledged integrative health and mindfulness specialist, best-selling author of 16 fitness and wellness books translated into multiple languages and sold worldwide, award-winning health journalist, contributing editor to Fitness Journal, media spokesperson, and IDEA's 2008 Fitness Instructor of the Year. She's a 25-year industry veteran and former health and fitness educator at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, who has served on multiple industry committees and co-authored trade books and manuals for ACE, ACSM and YMCA of the USA. She has appeared on TV worldwide and was a featured trainer on America's Next Top Model.

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