Wendy Suzuki Ph.D.

Brain Awakenings

An Exercise-Meditation Smackdown

Who will win our head-to-head brain battle between exercise and meditation?

Posted Jun 01, 2013

We’ve all read the flood of articles singing the praises of the positive effects of physical exercise and meditation on brain functions. You see them all the time. But did you ever wonder if exercise and meditation were doing the same things to your brain? Did you ever wonder which one was actually better for your brain? Today, I’m going to try to answer that question by pitting the raw physical power of exercise against the steely calm of meditation in a head to head, no holds barred, no stone left unturned good ol’ fashioned smackdown. The battle? Which one is better for your brain. Will it be a TKO or a fight to the finish? The answers may surprise you.

The match-up:

In this corner, we have aerobic exercise. Weighing in with over 45 years of scientific studies examining its effect on brain function, this competitor is the reigning “champ”. In the other corner, we have the challenger: meditation. While the practice of meditation has been around for thousands of years, meditation is clearly the upstart in this competition because the modern scientific study of its effects on brain function only started about 15 years ago.

So what does exercise bring to this battle? We know an enormous amount about the positive effects of exercise on a brain region called the hippocampus, a sea horse shaped structure that resides deep in the recesses of our brain’s temporal lobes. The hippocampus is critical for our ability to form and retain new long-term memories and as a consequence, neuroscientists have been particularly determined to characterize the positive effects of exercise on this structure. Experimental studies done in rats and mice have shown that increased exercise (for a rodent this means more running in a running wheel) increases the number of connections that your hippocampal cells make, increases their branching complexity as well as increases the concentration of some fantastic memory-boosting chemicals all over the brain including in the hippocampus. One of the most exciting findings in this field was the discovery that exercise can increase the birth of brand new cells in the hippocampus, a process known as neurogenesis. Given all these structural and chemical changes in the hippocampus, it’s no surprise that relative to sedentary rats, exercising rats show better performance on a range of long-term memory tasks. In humans many studies have reported that higher lifelong exercise levels are significantly correlated with better cognitive performance.

But there’s more…. The benefits of exercise on brain function are not limited to the hippocampus. There is also strong evidence in humans that exercise improves the functions of your prefrontal cortex -- the part of your brain that sits right behind your eyeballs. Your prefrontal cortex is involved in “executive functions” that include attention, working memory (keeping things in mind), and mental flexibility. If that wasn’t enough, we also know that exercise is a great mood booster. In one study it was shown that exercise could be as effective as a commonly used anti-depressant at improving symptoms of major depressive disorder. Clearly exercise packs a mean punch.

What does meditation bring to this smackdown? Fewer studies have been done on the effects of meditation on brain functions, but the published studies are promising. As I mentioned in my last post, a study that helped galvanize the interest on the brain effects of meditation was done in a population of Tibetan monks who had accumulated between 10,000 and 50,000 hours of meditation practice. This study showed that the patterns of electrical activity in their brains were amazingly synchronized during meditation relative to the brains of control subjects who had only a few weeks of meditation experience. This finding provided a striking example showing that long-term meditation practice could dramatically change the patterns of electrical activity in the brain. Other studies have uncovered additional striking effects of meditation on brain function.

For example, one study reported that meditation practice could increase the size of various brain structures including brain areas involved in sustained attention and emotional regulation. Similarly, another study showed expert meditators exhibited significantly larger activation in areas important for sustained attention relative to novice meditators. There is some evidence that that the network of prefrontal cortical structures involved in sustained attention that are enhanced by meditation may be distinct from those enhanced by exercise. Like exercise, meditation also has a significant positive effect on mood.

So after twelve grueling rounds of duking it out, who wins? We all do! While there are both similarities and differences between the effects of exercise and meditation on brain functions, by including both as part of your regular daily routine, you will be enhancing and strengthening the largest possible number of different brain areas. This will result in an enriched long-term memory, laser sharp attention as well as a sparkling mood.