Exercise just as effective as mindfulness in improving mental health, Cambridge study finds

Exercise can be just as effective as mindfulness at reducing people’s stress and anxiety, a Cambridge University study has found.

The form of meditation, which involves sitting silently to focus on thoughts, sounds and sensations, has become increasingly popular in recent years.

Often touted as a universal tool for improving mental health by reducing stress and depression, many people have turned to mindfulness to cope with anxieties resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.

But Cambridge University experts say it shouldn’t be assumed that meditating will always have a positive impact, adding some people will reap more benefits from physical exercises.

Across a series of randomised control trials (RTCs) carried out around the world, Dr Julieta Galante found that mindfulness performed no better or worse than other therapies, including exercise, in alleviating mental health problems.  

Researchers reviewed 136 RCTs, which looked at whether mindfulness in a community setting – meaning outside of a clinical environment – promotes mental health.

These trials included over 11,000 participants aged 18 to over 73 years from 29 countries of whom more than three-quarters (77 per cent) were women.

In most cases mindfulness did indeed reduce anxiety, stress and depression compared with doing nothing.

But in more than one in 20 trial settings, practicing mindfulness did not work, and that on average “when you compare mindfulness against something else which you can do for your mental health, there is no evidence of it being better or worse”.

Dr Julieta Galante told the Telegraph: “The main message here is, don’t assume mindfulness will work, don’t just assume it will work for everyone, everywhere in every setting.  

“We found no evidence that mindfulness is intrinsically better than other things. We have much, much more evidence for the mental and physical benefits of physical exercise.  

"It may be better for some people to choose to do physical exercise, if they had to choose.”

However, preliminary findings do suggest that mindfulness courses may work at its best for people in high stress occupations such as healthcare, Dr Galante said.

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An earlier study from Oxford University had examined the association between physical exercise and mental health in more than 1.2 million adults across America.

They asked for updates on the amount, type and duration of physical exercise, and for estimates of the number of days each month participants suffered ‘poor mental health’ (experiencing stress, depression or other emotional problems).

Those who exercised for 30 to 60 minutes at a time and who did so for two to six hours per week recorded the fewest days of poor mental health. 

The number of mindfulness and meditation online classes on offer has seen a surge over the past few years and particularly since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

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A report from the electronics and fitness company Fitbit found that the practice of meditation had increased by almost 3,000 per cent globally from March to September in 2020 in comparison to the same period last year.

While this online boom has proved a lifeline for many during the pandemic we should also be wary of what we lose out from face to face mindfulness sessions, Dr Galante added.  

“It’s commercially much more convenient not having human support because it is more expensive.

"The more automated you can make an online mindfulness course, the cheaper it will be. I think we should refrain from that as much as possible in case our findings extend to online automated courses as well." 

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