The small study, conducted at Rutgers University in New Jersey, was based on a set of assumptions: Healthy brains are constantly producing neurons. Brains of people under stress or suffering depression produce fewer neurons. Physical activity increases neuron production, as do antidepressant medications. (Meanwhile, a certain number of newborn neurons die off.) Mental exercise – “effortful learning,” which requires focus – reduces those deaths. People with depression often have problems with focus.
The researchers tested a novel intervention – it’s called MAP because it involves mental and physical training – aimed at both increasing neuron production and keeping those neurons alive.
Fifty-two people completed the study – 2 with major depressive disorder, or MDD, and 30 who were not depressed. Twice a week, they performed 30 minutes of meditation during which they were directed to constantly focus on their breathing; they began each session seated, but for the last 10 minutes they meditated while walking slowly. Then they performed 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on a treadmill or stationary cycle.
After eight weeks, the researchers found that the MDD patients’ depressive symptoms had been reduced by 40 percent. (The non-depressed participants also said they felt happier.) “Although previous research has supported the individual beneficial effects of aerobic exercise and meditation for depression,” the researchers wrote, “these findings indicate that a combination of the two may be particularly effective.”
Or, as Bergland puts it, it’s a “double whammy” against depression, And the best part is, both aerobic exercise and meditation are universally available, nonpharmaceutical and free.