Use of Mindful Exercise to Promote Wellbeing

There is currently extensive use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) — also known as integrative or mind-body medicine — in the United States to sustain well-being in both children and adolescents and in aging baby boomers. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) defines CAM therapies as “a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not generally considered part of conventional medicine,” with “conventional” medicine being defined as the approaches used by clinicians in the routine daily practice of Western or allopathic medicine that are within the currently accepted standard of care.

The most recent comprehensive assessment of CAM use in the United States found that roughly 40% of US adults had used at least one CAM therapy within the past year. An estimated 33-88% of older adults will use CAM therapies. In addition, Americans make more visits to CAM providers each year than to primary care physicians and spend at least as much money on out-of-pocket expenses for CAM services as they do for all conventional physician services combined. Patients with mental disorders turn to CAM for relief of symptoms of anxiety, mood, insomnia, impaired cognition, and perceived stress. The most commonly used CAM techniques include prayer for health and the use of multivitamin supplementation. Given widespread use of CAM services among patients, there is an urgent need for greater awareness and familiarity with its applications and outcomes.

As baby boomers age and increase use of CAM, health professionals require a working knowledge of CAM techniques intended to address physical and mental disorders. CAM treatments of mood and anxiety disorders include acupuncture, deep breathing exercises, massage therapy, meditation, naturopathy, and yoga.

Complementary and alternative medicine encompasses a number of techniques collectively known as mindful exercise (e.g. yoga, Qigong, and Tai Chi), or meditation. This ‘physical exercise executed with a profound inwardly directed contemplative focus’ is increasingly utilized for improving psychological well-being. In general, mindful physical exercise contains the following key elements:

  1. Non-competitive, non-judgmental meditative component
  2. Mental focus on muscular movement and movement awareness combined with a low to moderate level of muscular activity
  3. Centered breathing
  4. Focus on anatomic alignment (i.e., spine, trunk, and pelvis) and proper physical form
  5. Energy centric awareness of individual flow of intrinsic body energy, otherwise known as prana, life force, qi, or Kundalini.

Mindful exercise has been shown to provide an immediate source of relaxation and mental quiescence. Scientific evidence has shown that medical conditions such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance, depression, and anxiety disorders respond favorably to mindful exercises.

There is a growing database of the physiological effects of mindful exercise and meditation. Tai Chi and Qi Gong have been shown to promote relaxation and decrease sympathetic output, and to benefit anxiety, depression, blood pressure, and recovery from immune-mediated diseases. Tai Chi and Qi Gong have been shown to improve immune function and vaccine-response. These practices have also been shown to increase blood levels of endorphins and baroreflex sensitivity, and to reduce levels of inflammatory markers (CRP), adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH), and cortisol, implicating the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis as a mediator of stress and anxiety reduction. Brain wave or electroencephalopathy (EEG) studies of participants undergoing Tai Chi and Qi Gong exercise have found increased frontal EEG alpha, beta, and theta wave activity, suggesting increased relaxation and attentiveness. These changes have not been found in aerobic exercise controls.

In our studies, yogic meditation (Kirtan Kriya) for stressed family dementia caregivers resulted in lower levels of depressive symptoms, and improvements in mental health and cognitive functioning. Participants in the yogic meditation group showed a 43% improvement in telomerase activity after 12 minutes of daily practice for 8 weeks, compared with 3.7% in relaxation music control participants. This suggests that brief daily meditation practices can benefit stress-induced cellular aging. Kirtan Kriya reversed the pattern of increased NF-kappa B-related transcription of pro-inflammatory cytokines, and decreased IRF1-related transcription of innate antiviral response genes in distressed dementia caregivers. This reinforces the relationship between stress reduction and beneficial immune response. In the same study, nine caregivers received brain FDG-PET scans at baseline and post-intervention. When comparing the regional cerebral metabolism between groups, significant differences over time were found in different patterns of regional cerebral metabolism suggesting brain-fitness effect different from passive relaxation.

Studies of meditation also report decreased sympathetic nervous activity and increased parasympathetic activity associated with decreased heart rate and blood pressure, decreased respiratory rate, and decreased oxygen metabolism. Functional neuroimaging studies have been able to corroborate these subjective experiences by demonstrating the up-regulation in brain regions of internalized attention and emotion processing with meditation.

In a recent systematic review of neurobiological and clinical features of mindfulness meditations, Chiesa and Serretti (2010) provided evidence on the neurobiological changes related to Mindfulness Meditation (MM) practice in psychiatric disorders. Meditation practices that focus on concentration of an object or mantra seem to elicit the activation of fronto-parietal networks of internalized attention; meditation techniques that focus on breathing may elicit additional activation of paralimbic regions of insula and anterior cingulate; and meditation techniques that focus on emotion may elicit fronto-limbic activation. Future studies will be needed to disentangle the brain activation patterns related to different meditation traditions.

Given the noninvasive nature of mindful exercise and meditation, these exercises are an appropriate option for consumers and clinicians, particularly for conditions that have been examined in controlled studies. Significant evidence supports the assertion that Tai Chi and Qi Gong and yoga and meditation can improve physical and mental health, and quality of life. Ethical considerations should be taken into account when practicing or recommending spiritual interventions by healthcare professionals to respect patients’ beliefs in choosing mind-body interventions.

~ Helen Lavretsky, M.D., M.S.
Dr. Helen Lavretsky is a Professor of Psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, a geriatric psychiatrist with the research interest in geriatric depression and caregiver stress, as well as complementary and alternative medicine and mind-body approaches to treatment and prevention of disorders in older adults.  

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