Healthy mind, healthy body
Meditation-based exercises such as yoga and Pilates can have a powerful effect on your physical condition as well as your state of mind. Discover how to achieve the perfect balance.
There's a widely held belief that if you want to get fit you have to get your heart pumping. Well, not necessarily. A growing body of evidence proves that yoga is not just about standing on one leg pretending to be a tree, and tai chi isn't simply something that strange people do in the park. And practising them in the great outdoors could make the benefits even more potent. "It's well understood that there's a strong link between having a healthy mind and a healthy body," agrees psychologist Professor Craig Mahoney, spokesperson for the British Psychological Society. "Exercises such as yoga, tai chi and Pilates trigger a relaxation response that has proven advantages for our mental and physical health." So what rewards can we reap from these mind and body workouts?
Beat stressYoga and tai chi enthusiasts wax lyrical about the calming effects of their exercise regime, and research supports this. A study by Bangor University showed that people who took a six-week course of yoga reported feeling more resilient to stress, and a separate 2009 report found that those who practised tai chi had lower levels of cortisol the stress hormone in their saliva. "Many of us are under constant tension these days, with our bodies continuously pumping out stress hormones," says Jeanne Rae, spokesperson for the British Wheel of Yoga. "When we're stressed, our hearts beat faster and our breathing becomes shallower. Exercises such as yoga, tai chi and Pilates teach us how to slow down our breathing, which will help to calm the body and the mind."
Meditating outdoors increases the relaxation benefits to your body even further. A 2010 study by the University of Essex found that just five minutes of exercise in a green space can reduce stress, so doing your yoga stretches in the garden or practising tai chi in the park could help to free your mind from the strains of modern living.
Prevent heart diseaseExercise is renowned for its effects on cardiovascular health, but pounding the treadmill at the gym or running miles every day isn't the only way that you can protect your heart. Researchers at Yale University School of Medicine have found that practising yoga three times a week helps to reduce blood pressure and pulse, while a 2004 review showed that tai chi can be as effective as aerobic exercise in controlling blood pressure and improving cardiovascular fitness. "Any exercise that relieves stress will help to protect your heart by bringing down your blood pressure," explains Amy Thompson, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation. "And because youre feeling less stressed, you're less likely to indulge in risky behaviours such as smoking or drinking alcohol excessively." If you can exercise in a natural environment, so much the better for your health: research shows that blood pressure goes down quicker on a walk in the park than in the built-up city centre.
Boost your immunityIt's not just stretching and breathing in these workouts that can help, though experts are increasingly recognising the health impacts of meditation. According to a 2003 report, people who meditate produce more disease-fighting antibodies. "Meditative exercise will help you to gain control, awareness and understanding of your body," explains GP Dr Rory McGill (www.plymouthholisticdoctor.co.uk). "You're more in tune with your bodily processes, so you know when things are going wrong and can take action. It also stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for resting and digesting, which brings benefits for your immune system and overall health."
Exercises such as yoga and Pilates also boost immunity by improving our circulation and ability to get rid of toxins, and, again, the rewards are even greater if you're exercising outdoors: a 2010 Danish study found that vitamin D, which our bodies produce in response to sunlight, plays a key role in the function of the immune system.
Breathe more easilyLearning to control breathing is a fundamental element of meditative exercises, so it's no surprise that these regimes can improve your lung function. In fact, a 2011 study in the The Journal of Complementary Medicine found that practising tai chi twice a week does more for your respiratory function than walking for an hour a day. "As babies, we all have perfect breathing, but as we get older, our posture and muscle tone deteriorate. We have less control over our diaphragm and breathing becomes less effective," Jeanne Rae says. "Yoga teaches people how to slow down their breathing and use the whole of the lungs."
Improve your postureAccording to the British Chiropractic Association, we're a nation plagued by poor posture, but tai chi, Pilates and yoga can help us to straighten up. "Tai chi re-educates you about how you use your body," explains Ronnie Robinson of The Tai Chi Union. "The exercises focus on helping you feel the connection between your body and the ground, which brings you back into alignment."
Science backs up this theory: two 2011 studies showed that tai chi can improve balance and strength and reduce the risk of falls, and that women with musculoskeletal problems such as lower back pain, for example, improved their gait and balance by practising yoga. Double the benefits by stepping out of your shoes and into the garden to exercise the way that nature intended.
Increase energy levelsIn our hectic world, many of us feel permanently exhausted. Rather than relying on stimulants including caffeine, sugar or alcohol as a pick-me-up, meditative exercise is a natural way to get more energy, with research showing that yoga, tai chi and meditation can reduce fatigue. "Because we're stressed all the time, our bodies are continually producing cortisol and adrenaline," Dr McGill explains. As a result, our hearts beat faster, our muscles are tense and our breathing is shallow: processes that are physically draining for the body. "If we can control stress through exercise, it calms the body so that the entire unit functions better," he adds. Learning to relax also improves the quality of your sleep: an Australian study found that yoga and meditation increase production of melatonin, the sleep hormone, giving you a better night's sleep and more energy to embrace the day.
Become more flexibleIf weeding the garden leaves you feeling stiff, youre not alone; about 80 per cent of us will suffer from back pain at some stage. Taking up yoga, Pilates or tai chi can help to combat the problem by making us more flexible. Research in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine shows that Pilates causes marked improvements in balance and flexibility, while another study found that yoga could increase flexibility by up to 35 per cent in just eight weeks. "Practising Pilates or yoga poses puts your body through its entire range of movement," Jeanne Rae says. "This strengthens the joints and muscles and makes you stronger and more supple." And with a 2009 report in the American Journal of Physiology showing that people who have poor flexibility are also more likely to have hardening of the arteries, potentially leading to heart disease, yoga wont just help you tie your shoelaces more easily; it could also prolong your life.
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