Meditation and CrossFit: How Meditation Changes the Brain and Body

Jeff Baldelli
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The Mental Benefits of Meditation

In today’s society, most of us are aware of the importance of finding a balance between work and relaxation. The real challenge that bothers most people is finding the perfect balance. The best way to manage your activities is setting a schedule and sticking to it, but how many of you actually follow a daily schedule?

It is difficult to find the perfect balance between time dedicated to your job and free time. When you finally achieve it, your situation or job changes and you must start over again with no relief in sight.

Meditation can be the missing piece of the puzzle that will help you find the perfect balance between work and relaxation. It will help you shed some of your worries and stress, leaving you with a clear head and new perspective.

Meditation like any other form of exercise can be physically demanding, but most of the time, the easiest way to start is with regularity. You can start with 10 or 15 minutes, with a goal to increase the time and frequency as you become more comfortable with it.

The time might be long, but imagining the benefits of meditation and actually experiencing them are two totally different things. The best way to start is by finding an easy-to-follow meditation app that will help you get started.

Better Mood

Monday was the worst day of Mr. Smith’s week. He would often arrive at work frustrated, tired, and ready to snap at anyone who got in his way.

He knew he needed to make some changes but didn’t know where to begin.

“I didn’t want to start taking more prescription meds. I thought meditation would help,” Mr. Smith said.

After a little research into different types of meditation, Mr. Smith decided to try transcendental meditation.

Within two months, Mr. Smith noticed a change in his mood. He felt more patient, and he had a better attitude when dealing with stress at work.

When he thought about it, Mr. Smith realized that he was getting madder as the week went on and felt a lot better after his meditation sessions.

During a recent study at the University of Wisconsin, scientists discovered that an 8-week transcendental meditation program helped participants in the study lower their levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that can cause its own problems. Lower cortisol levels can lead to reduced anxiety and stress.

Improved Awareness

The practice of mindfulness meditation involves the deep relaxation of the body and mind through focusing on breathing and connecting to the present.

When you learn to be mindful of what you are sensing, feeling, and thinking, you open yourself up to increased awareness and start experiencing what is really happening, rather than just living in reaction to what’s going on. Instead of living from old habits of fear and anger, you make skillful responses instead of reacting impulsively.

This awareness leads to deeper self-knowledge and a greater sense of vitality. Many people who practice mindfulness meditation report a greater sense of spark in their daily lives, increased curiosity, greater personal power, and even deeper levels of creativity.

A study done at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center found that mindfulness meditation increased activity in the left prefrontal cortex of the brain, the area responsible for keeping emotions in check. The more activity and gray matter volume observed in this area of the brain, the scientists found, the better the participant did at regulating emotions during the experiment.

It’s not surprising then that a 2003 study of healthy seniors found that even as little as eight weeks of mindfulness training reduced the stress levels of participants. Perhaps more important, the more the seniors practiced their mindfulness, the less likely they were to slip into a stress-related illness like the flu or cold.

Stress Reduction

One of the ways that meditation is thought to promote health is through stress reduction, which is a multi-dimensional process. First, the core mechanism of stress is linked to the stress response, which is regulated by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.

Hypothalamus signals the pituitary gland to secrete adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), in turn triggering the release of stress hormones like cortisol. The medical literature indicates that chronic stress results in the suppression of the immune system and the promotion of sickness, which can lead to illness and disease.

Stress reduction causes tapers of cortisol resulting in lower stress and lower cortisol levels over time. This is the body’s natural feedback loop that puts your body in stress mode to deal with a threat. Since meditation is a way to lower stress levels, it can help keep you healthy over time.

Restful Sleep

Learning how to meditate properly can be daunting. If you've tried meditating in the past and weren't very successful, consider this: you were probably still a beginner, and when you aren't proficient at something, you have to take it easy.

The same is true with meditating: you should start out slowly, and you have to do it on a consistent basis before you see any real benefits.

Too often, new practitioners try to go at it like a bull at a gate in their first sessions. And if you're sitting in a cross-legged position and trying to concentrate on your breathing and on your thoughts, it's easy to become distracted.

When you first begin to meditate, you can't afford to have that happen. You need to learn how to handle your distractions, and that can only come with practice and patience.

Here are a few various exercises that you can practice to help you get in the right frame of mind for meditation.

The Physical Benefits of Meditation

What is the physical benefit of meditation and how does meditation reduce stress?

To understand why meditation is so beneficial, one must first understand what happens when we’re stressed. Our bodies rush into a fight or flight response. This pattern can be triggered by a text message from our co-worker, a text message from our significant other, or a curveball from our boss that that unexpected presentation on Friday.

While there are numerous responses that occur as a result of stress, one of these responses takes over our sympathetic nervous system. This is a name for the branch of our nervous system that controls our fight or flight reactions to an event or stimulus.

The sympathetic nervous system is chiefly responsible for what is known as the stress response. It is the latter of these that is of concern in this commentary, as it is in part responsible for what is commonly referred to as “monkey mind.” It may also be responsible for the lightning fast increase in heart rate, heavy breathing, clammy hands, and an on-edge feeling.

Strengthened Cardiovascular System

In a study done by Hippokratio and associates, participants who practiced mindfulness meditation over eight weeks had an increase in heart-disease-fighting arteries. One the other hand, there was a decrease in artery thickness from those who were assigned to do traditional relaxation techniques. The results show the meditators’ cardiovascular health improving.

Better Pain Tolerance

A study conducted by Gaab and associates found that meditation increases pain tolerance. The results showed that people who practiced mindful meditation showed an increase in pain threshold tolerance. In the process, the study also found an increase in gray matter density in the areas that control emotion and sensation.

Focusing the Mind

Focused attention is the ability to maintain a specific focus. This can be done either by concentration or by directing attention itself. An example of this would be the experience of focusing on one thought for a long period of time. Those who consciously direct their thought to meditate are said to have better control of focused attention. Meditation helps those who have a difficult time maintaining focus by training the ability to refocus when distracted. The result shows an increase in participants’ ability to direct their focus.

Improved Immune System

Studies have shown that after an eight-week MBSR course, the brain and immune system changed in a similar way to people who had just finished a three-month meditation retreat. They reported feeling a 50% reduction in depressive symptoms and improvement in pain levels, stress, anxiety, and insomnia. These benefits were shown to last for a year after the course was completed. The participants were also able to get better sleep, and the effects of previous physical injuries seemed to heal faster. Both athletes and those with chronic pain experienced these improvements.

If this course is not available to you, a few sessions may still help your immune system and also reduce your levels of stress and anxiety.

Boosted Stamina

Another strong reason for exercising while meditating is that the main outcome of renouncing a regular exercise routine is a boost in one’s stamina and performance.

Studies that involved pairing meditation with yoga, weightlifting, running, and cycling found that participants had a much higher endurance capacity than the general population.

Tr. B. Duhigg reports on studies that show how practicing yoga alone can increase one’s physical and mental strength. Yoga increases stress resilience because it helps you learn to manage physiological responses to worry.

As a result, yoga practitioners are more resistant to common illnesses. Additionally, from a physiological perspective, yoga can also improve blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and generally reduce inflammation.

That’s not all. A regular practice of any form of exercise is also known to alleviate physical and mental fatigue.

Studies also show that meditation alone can reduce mental fatigue. Neuroscientists have found that the grey matter in the hippocampi increases for regular meditators, in turn, boosting memory recall and enhancing mental processing.

Speedier Recovery

Those who get used to meditation often find they have more stamina and a faster recovery time from workouts than they’d have otherwise. This is because they’re in better control of the way their mind responds to the endless demands on the body and mind that accompany a high-intensity regimen like CrossFit.

Meditation is one of the few activities that bypasses the logical decision-making process of the brain by creating a moment of calm and stillness. You can initiate a Centerline Breath meditation anywhere, at any time. Whenever you feel yourself getting agitated or tightening up, when you feel your shoulders start to hunch or your jaw clench, take a deep inhale and let it out as you focus on your diaphragm lifting up and relaxing down. This is especially good to do after a workout.

Create a climate of mindfulness at a time that’s convenient for you. It’s a no-brainer that you can find one or two minutes at the end of a workout to breathe. On top of that, many of the gyms with programs like CrossFit have plenty of room and equipment designed specifically for practicing yoga and meditation. Make it a habit to hold off on the CrossFit energy bar or pizza party after class until you’ve spent five minutes relaxing and getting your mind back in control.

Promotes Health Conscious Choices

Two of the most significant health epidemic’s today are depression and obesity. It’s important to note that although many people want to lose weight or improve their health, they are having a difficult time changing their lifestyle. Encouraging your friends and family to get help with depression or dieting is certainly admirable. However, consider the positive and powerful changes that taking up meditation can have on your health and well-being.

Meditation changes the brain structure of those who practice, allows relaxation, alters the body’s biochemistry, and helps people develop better habits. In addition to lowering stress levels, anger, fear, anxiety, and depression, meditation encourages healthy decision making and focus, creates better communication and mood, improves sleep patterns, and reduces inflammation.

Applying Meditation to Your CrossFit Workout

There are many benefits to incorporating meditation into your CrossFit routine. Meditations allow you to relax the mind and the body, improve your mood, boost your immune system, and workout the right way for your specific body.

Incorporating both meditation and CrossFit will allow you to balance stress and anxiety. Throughout the day, many people experience a lot of stress and anxiety. Meditation is the best way to relieve stress and anxiety.

During meditation, you learn how to focus on the present and slow your mind in order to stop worrying about the past and future. When your mind is relaxed, you will feel much happier and energized.

Mindfulness meditation is also the best way to control your thoughts, which can prevent you from sweating the small stuff. When you become mindful of the present, you will realize that there are many things that are not worth worrying about.

The second benefit of incorporating meditation into your CrossFit routine is that it will boost your immune system. Your immune system is responsible for protecting the body from any type of sickness such as cold, flu, etc.

When your mind and body are relaxed and not stressed, your immune system will be stronger and able to fight off any foreign bacteria in the body. A strong immune system is the best way to fight off sickness and protect your body.

Before Your Workout

It is possible for a person to generate enough nervous excitement to do him harm instead of good, and the only way to guard against it is by practising for a sufficiently long period at a lower rate.

~Exercise and Hygiene by Bernarr MacFadden

Before beginning a workout, always warm up. Jumping right into a workout after prolonged rest can put some people into a hyper state. This can be dangerous if they are too excited.

Another theory is to prevent a chill down effect from starting a workout with high nervous excitement that you can’t yet readily control. In this case, you would go through a short and gentle warm-up to ease the body into the workout. This allows your muscles to prepare for the workload while the body temperature warms.

~from Super Training by Starr and Wickliffe, 1959.

When you meditate, you turn your attention inwards and focus on your breath and what’s happening in the moment. That kind of single-pointed focus is similar to concentration on a specific workout that requires your undivided attention, such as weight training.

During Your Workout

There have been numerous studies comparing the brain states of people who practice meditation to people who don’t. All of them have shown that practicing meditation can increase attention capacity and slow your brain waves, making you a more relaxed person. Slower brain waves is something that many people need to have as a result of the fast-paced, on-going lives we live.

Researchers have also found that meditation can change the brain in many different ways. Some of the changes are beneficial, while others make you a calmer, more ideally-suited person for training.

One of the changes that meditation affects is the coordination of the brain. One meditation study found that meditators have a thicker cortex, which is a layer of the brain that is a very important visual processing center. This changes the way that the brain discerns specific shapes and helps the brain to make sense of it all.

Another one of the amazing meditation benefits is its positive effects on the areas of the brain that record emotions and experiences and also processes memories. This means that not only does your memory get better, it also allows you to process your emotions faster and more fully. Without those two things, our lives would be difficult.

A lot of things can trigger negative emotions, and meditation is a great tool to handle those things before they negatively affect your body.

After Your Workout

After your workout, your body’s temperature is elevated and your breathing is heavy.

This combination makes the world around you seem like it’s moving at a snail’s pace. It can make it nearly impossible to keep up with the world around you. That’s why after a workout, it’s best to find a quiet place where you can meditate. You’ll be able to come down from your elevated state and come back to reality, even though you’re still breathing heavily.

Meditation quiets the mind and gets you in tune with the moment. It’s hard to be present in the world around you when you’re preoccupied with the feelings your body is having and the thoughts your mind is conjuring up. The extra energy you have immediately after exercising is likely to cause your mind to jump from thought to thought. After a class, you’ll be flooded with thoughts that are easier to quiet if you can bring your attention to your breathing.

When To Start Meditating

There is no one age at which meditation is recommended to start. Studies have demonstrated the benefits of meditation on children as young as five years old, and there are many adults who have been doing it for decades.

One of the best times to start is in the early years. Even if you are too young to understand what is happening, you will benefit from meditating, as meditation is most effective when children learn to practice it while they are young.

As you get older, meditation can still be of great use. It is often beneficial to start meditating again in later years. The slowed down pace, and quiet of the mind can do a lot of good for people who are dealing with stress or reminiscing about the good old days.

Whether you started meditation at an early age or not, it is never too late to start.