Mindfulness or exercise? Working out could be just as beneficial for those who hate meditating

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Mindfulness has huge benefits for your mental health – but meditation isn’t the only anxiety reducing practice out there. 

If you’ve been searching for a way to feel less stressed out, you’ve probably come across the concept of ’mindfulness’. What was once a niche term for consciousness and awareness of the body and breath during meditation and yoga has now become common parlance as we all seek to better our mental health

Mindfulness has become a prescribed tool, particularly during lockdown as rates of anxiety and low mood have surged. The NHS even has a whole page dedicated to the practice, as it does with other treatments for physical and mental illnesses. 

But mindfulness isn’t a cure all, according to new research by the University of Cambridge

In a report published in PLOS Medicine, a team of researchers from the Department of Psychiatry led a review into the effectiveness of mindfulness. They reviewed 136 trials, including 11,605 participants aged 18 to 73 years from 29 different countries, more than three-quarters of whom were women. They found that, compared with doing nothing, mindfulness reduces anxiety, depression and stress, and increases wellbeing.

“For the average person and setting, practising mindfulness appears to be better than doing nothing for improving our mental health, particularly when it comes to depression, anxiety and psychological distress,” says the report’s first author Dr Julieta Galante. 

A woman meditating
Mindfulness can help you to keep your anxiety under control on a daily basis.

However, don’t worry if you can’t get on board with mindful behaviour despite trying an online course, attempting mindful breathing, or trying to tune in to your body during a walk. While the research shows that 19 out of 20 programmes did work, “we shouldn’t assume that it works for everyone, everywhere,” says Dr Galante. 

In order to find out what else could trigger the same decline in anxiety and depression for those who couldn’t get on with mindfulness, the researchers looked at the impact of other ‘feel good’ practices. The good news? They found there were lots of other practices we can follow to elicite the same results  – including exercise. While the study didn’t outline the best forms of movement that could improve your mental health, there is plenty of research out there that suggests walking or running in nature has huge mental health benefits. Yoga has also been proven to reduce stress, as has strength training.

Another study, published on the same day, by RMIT University in Melbourne found that people who pursue activities they actually enjoy during lockdown feel more satisfied than those who simply keep themselves busy. 

Both of these pieces of research are a positive step, as they show that there’s plenty of things that you can do in order to look after your mental health. From going for a fast-paced run to sitting still and meditating, or baking another banana bread to FaceTiming your friends, finding something that makes you feel good is the most important thing you can do. So don’t feel frustrated if you can’t get on board with mindfulness – perhaps try lacing up instead.  

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