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Balanced Fitness, Tougher Brain

A short meditation can make you stronger in the place you need it most.

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Most of us like the idea of meditating more than we like to do it. When sitting still in a quiet room, it’s hard to shake the feeling that we should have a pair of dumbbells in our hands. Fact is, if you want to better your fitness efforts, it’s time to reconsider how training your brain can improve your workouts in the gym.

Elizabeth Stanley, Ph.D., is an Army veteran, an associate professor at Georgetown University and the creator of a system called Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT). She believes that combining meditation and exercise can more efficiently create changes in the brain that make you better able to tolerate stress. And that’s what a good workout is — a stress-generating event.

In several studies with active military personnel, MMFT has been effective at dealing with the negative symptoms that a modern stressful event generates, phenomena that our primal physiology is still struggling to figure out.

“We are all wired with a nervous system that is optimized for a world about 200,000 years ago. When we had a major threat, like a tiger attack, we would mobilize all kinds of energy and then discharge most of that energy trying to get away from the threat or fighting it. Then we would go hide in a cave and recover. That’s not the world we live in anymore,” Stanley says. “Now we are dealing with constant stressors. We are worried about work and relationships. They’re not going to hurt us, but your brain and the body don’t know that. We’re mobilizing the stress response in our bodies, but we are not fully discharging it.

Research partners of Stanley studied the brain’s response to stress in two groups. One was made up of average citizens while the second consisted of “elite performers” such as high-level athletes and members of military Special Forces. Stanley and her colleagues found that elite performers were better at keeping their bodies and minds balanced in the face of stress.

When Stanley tested her Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training protocol on active marines, she found that after eight weeks, the brains and bodies of non-elite performers began to resemble those of the elite, in the form of improved heart rate and respiration in the face of stress.

“They built more capacity in their bodies and minds to tolerate a bigger mobilization of energy,” Stanley says. “Part of that extra mobilized energy shows up as more capacity to cope with what is happening during a stressful event.”

Stanley says the brain is more “plasticine” immediately after a workout and more able to build neurons and establish the rewiring that helps us handle stress.

No matter where you are on the road to self-improvement — beginner, mid-level or advanced — you can improve your fitness by taking a little time to train your mind along with your body.

Postworkout Meditation That Works

This simple five-minute meditative drill is part of Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training and is designed to create changes in the brain that will better tolerate stress. “If you do this every time you work out, it will have a tremendous effect in supporting the system to grow more capacity to cope with stress,” says Elizabeth Stanley, Ph.D. This refers as much to the ability to reach higher levels of fitness as it does to improving coping skills facing everyday situations.

• Immediately after a workout, lie faceup on the floor and feel the whole of the back of your body make contact with the floor, specifically your head, shoulders, hips, knees, ankles and heels.

• Pay attention to the pressure, hardness, heat or coolness of the contact points. Focus on the sensations they generate.

• If the mind wanders off, keep redirecting attention back to the sensations of contact. (It’s normal to have a mind that drifts when you first start out.)

• You might feel itching or your muscles might twitch. That is all part of the process.

• “Any time you pay attention to body sensation you are giving a workout to your insular cortex, the part of the brain that is most needed for self-regulating before, during and after stress. This also sends the cue to the brain that the body is supported and stable right now,” Stanley says.

For more information on MMFT, check out the Mind Fitness Training Institute.