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Putting mind, body and soul into learning about exercise; Julieta Galante, researcher at the Cochrane Institute of Primary Care and Public Health, Cardiff University's School of Medicine looks at the differences and similarities between physical and mental exercise.

WHEN you think of physical exercise, your mind may well conjure images of unrelenting exertion, a sweat-soaked brow and swollen muscles.

You can immediately picture the proud owner of those muscles, and then a modern gym full of proud owners of muscles. Now try thinking about meditation.

The first things that may spring to mind are two painfully crossed legs, and fingers making obscure gestures. Yet the concept of meditation has a lot in common with the concept of physical exercise.

Playing competitive sport is much like playing games to train your mind. But meditation isn't so far removed from training in the gym or running in the park. In doing so you are training consciously.

Sitting down to meditate once and expecting something magical to happen, is as naive as going to the gym once and expecting your abs to turn into iron plates.

In physical exercise and meditation, both discipline and effort are required for improvement.

People of all abilities can partake in either discipline.

There are athletes and there are expert meditators with remarkable capacities, but they are people who dedicate their lives to their disciplines.

Physical exercise is a broad concept that implies moving your body with the intention of training it.

This could be just mechanically moving your arm, or could consist of highly coordinated actions such as skipping.

There are many tried and tested ways of stimulating the growth of our muscles through isolation exercises and resistance movements.

But with so many billions of neurons charging their way through our brains, how can be sure what areas of our minds we are stimulating? In focused meditation an object or a sound is used to focus and eventually quiet the mind, thus freeing your awareness. It is much like lifting a weight repeatedly. And the muscle you engage is your concentration; you consciously train your concentration.

You choose the object and - if any - the meaningfulness of it.

Mindfulness is like jogging. You don't focus on one object; you just keep running along in the present moment.

Thoughts of your past or future will return to your mind throughout, but you have to keep running, there is little time to stop and dwell.

Our emotions can also be trained through meditation. Loving-kindness meditation is basically non-possessive wellwishing; well-wishing for ourselves, our loved ones, for those we do not know well and those we have never even met.

People practise it to achieve greater self-respect, to live lives of greater connection, and to stay in touch with what they really care about so that they can act in ways that are consistent with their values.

But does meditation really train our minds in ways that are beneficial to our overall health and wellbeing? This area of research is growing very rapidly and in science it is essential not to fall into either extreme scepticism or uncritical acceptance. However, there are some encouraging results.

We still do not have all the answers, but a number of studies support the notion that meditation helps regulate attention and emotion - and improves our sense of wellbeing.

Other studies show improvements in physical health, such as resistance to acute respiratory infections.

Some evidence suggests that improvements in brain function may even endure beyond sessions of meditation.

Last year Wales' former Chief Medical Officer warned in his annual report of stark health inequalities across Wales.

Recent census data revealed Wales is one of the unhealthiest places to live in the UK.

Chronic unemployment and deprivation are affecting the self-esteem, hope and health of entire communities.

People affected by poor health and mental wellbeing often tend to isolate themselves instead of leaning on the support of their community. Sustained and concerted actions are needed to improve this situation, but improving the way people feel about themselves and others should certainly be one of them.

One of the biggest problems is how to generate resources amid a climate of austerity and how to make them more widely available.

Researchers at Cardiff University have recently tested the feasibility of a web-based loving-kindness meditation course. The course is available to anyone, provided they have not been instructed to avoid physical activity by a medical practitioner.

The web-based format of delivery is a convenient public health tool and represents an inexpensive and effective way of opening up widespread access to exercise instruction.

Researchers at Cardiff University are now launching The Web Wellbeing Experience - a much larger study to clarify the real effectiveness of two free web-based courses, with the dual aim of helping people improve their mental and physical health.

By the end, we hope participants in this study will have abandoned any preconceptions of meditation and the kind of people who meditate.

Perhaps the findings of the study will even encourage some people to worry less about how they look and more about how they feel.


In physical exercise and meditation, both discipline and effort are required for improvement
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Feb 18, 2013
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