Sure, your run can help you chill out. But practicing meditation can up your zen even more.
If you’ve ever spent a few minutes meditating at the end of yoga class, you know that trying to slow down your thoughts is a bit trickier than it looks.
“Our minds are constantly moving—worrying about deadlines, evaluating our own performance or that of others, or dwelling on interactions from the past,” says Nina Smiley, Ph.D., director of mindfulness programming at Mohonk Mountain House in New York.
But practicing meditation trains your mind to focus your awareness on the present, which can help you achieve that coveted zen. This state of calmness doesn’t just feel good—it’s actually good for your health, too, and can be directly beneficial to your running. Even mainstream medicine is starting to acknowledge the ancient practice as research surrounding its benefits grows.
Related: Stay injury free on the road by getting on the mat with Yoga for Runners.
“I recommend all people—that includes all patients I have—learn which [meditation] techniques work for them, and then practice it routinely,” says Mike Roizen, M.D., chief wellness officer at the Cleveland Clinic and chairman of the Vitamin Packs medical advisory board. That’s because meditation doesn’t carry the risk of any negative side effects—and it’s free.
But understanding how meditation works has proven difficult. “It’s only recently that we’re starting to see studies that are good, randomized, controlled trials that are larger in size, says Madhav Goyal, M.D., M.P.H., an assistant professor of at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who researches the effects of meditation on overall well-being.
So why exactly should you bother with meditation? The evidence we do have is very promising. Here are six ways practicing mindfulness every day may benefit your body from the inside out.
Improve your mental health
Psychologically, “meditation helps us get out of our own way,” says Judson Brewer, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor in medicine and psychiatry and director of research at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts.
The strongest link we have between meditation and overall health is its ability to reduce stress, which can trigger or exacerbate several serious conditions, including heart disease, obesity, and even anxiety disorders.
The good news is, meditating can boost your mood: After researchers at Johns Hopkins University analyzed 47 trials (which included more than 3,500 people), they concluded that mindfulness meditation programs could help improve anxiety, according to a meta-analysis published in JAMA Internal Medicine.
Long-term meditation can also help slash your depression risk (or help you treat it if you’re already struggling), potentially because it has a positive effect on your brain chemistry, Roizen says. Research suggests various meditation techniques curb the release of mood-altering cytokines, an inflammatory chemical that may lead to the development of depression over time.
“We have pretty good evidence now to recommend [meditation] clinically, either as a treatment or as an adjunct treatment, for people who are suffering from anxiety, depression, or chronic pain,” Goyal says.
Reduce harmful inflammation
“Inflammation is the body’s reaction to something it doesn’t want where it is,” Roizen says. In some cases, that’s a good thing—it’s the result of your body working to attack an allergen or infection. But chronic inflammation causes structural changes in your body that have been tied to several major chronic diseases, like cancer, diabetes, IBS, and even Alzheimer’s.
But meditation may help mitigate those damaging effects. In a study published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, researchers gave participants mindfulness meditation training or enrolled them in a general health improvement program. After eight weeks, they used a fire-y capsaicin cream to trigger an inflammatory response on their skin—simply because it’s easier to test your skin than your brain, Roizen says.
They found that the meditating participants showed a significantly smaller inflammatory response compared to those who didn’t, which suggests meditation might have the potential to reduce chronic inflammation in your body, Roizen says.