How Mindfulness Can Help Depression

Mindfulness meditation is one of the biggest trends in both medical and New Age circles. It broadly describes a form of mental training in which one deliberately focuses on emotions, thoughts, and sensory experiences of the present moment. Though it has roots in various religious traditions both Western and Eastern (especially Buddhism), it has long been observed to have secular applications as well, and the practice itself does not require any particular religious ritual or component.

There has been a lot of research showing that mindfulness, like meditation as a whole, has tangible mental and physical health benefits. The most recent study to confirm the benefits of “mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT)”, as it is known in medical parlance, was published in The Lancet, a leading medical journal. As Al Jazeera reported:

In this study, 424 adults in England with recurrent major depression, who were on maintenance antidepressant drugs, were randomly assigned to go off their antidepressants slowly and receive MBCT or to stay on their medication.

Study results published showed that after two years, relapse rates were similar in both groups — 44 percent in the therapy group versus 47 percent in the antidepressant drug group.

“Mindfulness gives me a set of skills which I use to keep well in the long term”, Nigel Reed, a participant in the study, said in a statement. “Rather than relying on the continuing use of antidepressants, mindfulness puts me in charge, allowing me to take control of my own future, to spot when I am at risk and to make the changes I need to stay well”.

The researchers said that while they found no evidence that [mindfulness] was superior to the use of antidepressants in preventing relapse, they said “both treatments were associated with enduring positive outcomes in terms of relapse or recurrence, residual depressive symptoms and quality of life”.

“We believe these results suggest a new choice for the millions of people with recurrent depression on repeat prescriptions”, Kuyken said.

I can personally vouch for the effectiveness of this approach, although it is worth reiterating that this is just one of several ways to combat depression, and by no means is it a wholesale replacement of other therapies (indeed, it is usually complementary).

Solutions will always vary from individual to individual, but with the rate of depression growing across the world, any new options on the table will certainly help; moreover, mindfulness techniques are beneficial to overall wellness, not just as a therapy for depression.

The Unexpected Cause Of Addiction

Addiction has long been the subject of intense personal criticism, attributed to personal irresponsibility, negligence, or immorality. But centuries of this approach have done little to mitigate it; if anything, social or legal punishments make the problem worse, breeding psychological distress and resentment that further reinforce, if not escalate, the addiction.

A cynic might chalk the persistence of this social ill to the vagaries of human nature, e.g. bad, stupid, or irresponsible have always existed and always will. No amount of medical, legal, or social support will do anything about it. Locking up addicts or ostracizing them is the most we can do to remove the problem.

But there is mounting research, going back over three decades, that shows substance abuse to have more complex and external origins that go well beyond personal fiat. As HuffPo reported:

One of the ways this theory was first established is through rat experiments – ones that were injected into the American psyche in the 1980s, in a famous advert by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. You may remember it. The experiment is simple. Put a rat in a cage, alone, with two water bottles. One is just water. The other is water laced with heroin or cocaine. Almost every time you run this experiment, the rat will become obsessed with the drugged water, and keep coming back for more and more, until it kills itself.

The advert explains: “Only one drug is so addictive, nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it. And use it. And use it. Until dead. It’s called cocaine. And it can do the same thing to you”.

But in the 1970s, a professor of Psychology in Vancouver called Bruce Alexander noticed something odd about this experiment. The rat is put in the cage all alone. It has nothing to do but take the drugs. What would happen, he wondered, if we tried this differently? So Professor Alexander built Rat Park. It is a lush cage where the rats would have colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want. What, Alexander wanted to know, will happen then?

In Rat Park, all the rats obviously tried both water bottles, because they didn’t know what was in them. But what happened next was startling.

The rats with good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did.

Before anyone points out the obvious fact that rats are not humans, and thus not a reliable basis on which to base our addiction solutions on, it turns out that the Vietnam War, of all things, bolstered the study’s conclusion as well:

Time magazine reported using heroin was “as common as chewing gum” among U.S. soldiers, and there is solid evidence to back this up: some 20 percent of U.S. soldiers had become addicted to heroin there, according to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry. Many people were understandably terrified; they believed a huge number of addicts were about to head home when the war ended.

But in fact some 95 percent of the addicted soldiers — according to the same study — simply stopped. Very few had rehab. They shifted from a terrifying cage back to a pleasant one, so didn’t want the drug any more.

Professor Alexander argues this discovery is a profound challenge both to the right-wing view that addiction is a moral failing caused by too much hedonistic partying, and the liberal view that addiction is a disease taking place in a chemically hijacked brain. In fact, he argues, addiction is an adaptation. It’s not you. It’s your cage.

In other words, addiction is shaped as much, if not more, by the individual’s social environment than any chemical reaction or moral perspective. This makes sense when one considers that fundamentally social nature of humans, and how our behaviors, actions, and pathologies are influenced by a wide range of external factors, ranging from the physical environment to the support of our fellow humans.

Here’s one example of an experiment that is happening all around you, and may well happen to you one day. If you get run over today and you break your hip, you will probably be given diamorphine, the medical name for heroin. In the hospital around you, there will be plenty of people also given heroin for long periods, for pain relief. The heroin you will get from the doctor will have a much higher purity and potency than the heroin being used by street-addicts, who have to buy from criminals who adulterate it. So if the old theory of addiction is right — it’s the drugs that cause it; they make your body need them — then it’s obvious what should happen. Loads of people should leave the hospital and try to score smack on the streets to meet their habit.

But here’s the strange thing: It virtually never happens. As the Canadian doctor Gabor Mate was the first to explain to me, medical users just stop, despite months of use. The same drug, used for the same length of time, turns street-users into desperate addicts and leaves medical patients unaffected.

If you still believe — as I used to — that addiction is caused by chemical hooks, this makes no sense. But if you believe Bruce Alexander’s theory, the picture falls into place. The street-addict is like the rats in the first cage, isolated, alone, with only one source of solace to turn to. The medical patient is like the rats in the second cage. She is going home to a life where she is surrounded by the people she loves. The drug is the same, but the environment is different.

This gives us an insight that goes much deeper than the need to understand addicts. Professor Peter Cohen argues that human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. It’s how we get our satisfaction. If we can’t connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find — the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe. He says we should stop talking about ‘addiction’ altogether, and instead call it ‘bonding.’ A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn’t bond as fully with anything else.

So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.

I recommend reading the rest of the article, but the conclusion is clear: when addressing addiction at both an individual and community level, it is vital to go beyond the biological or psychological factors and take into account the context — the state of the addict’s social life, the sort of bonds or lack thereof in their life, etc. A more holistic view takes into account all the relevant details.

Obviously, more research is needed to explore this issue, but it is definitely interesting and important to take into account every possible variable.

Lessons From The World’s Blue Zones

One of the major motivations to eat healthy, exercise regularly, and engage in healthy lifestyles is to enjoy a long and quality life. Most people want to enjoy as many fruitful and productive years as possible, and thankfully advances in medicine and nutrition are making it easier than ever.

But the key to longevity and productive old age may be a lot simpler and more accessible, if the world’s “Blue Zones” are any indication. These are regions in the world – Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; Ogliastra Region, Sardinia; Loma Linda, California; and Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica – that are known for having the highest number of centenarians (those living at or past 100) in the world.

In fact, not only do these Blue Zoners live long lives, but perhaps more importantly, they enjoy fairly robust mental and physical faculties: despite their advanced age, they are active, alert, happy, and lacking the diseases and disabilities that usually afflict people decades younger, let alone at or near 100.

So what do people in these communities – which span different cultures, climates, and environments – do to stay so healthy for so long?

Well, they each have their differences: for example, Sardinians consume a lot of fava beans and red wine, residents of Loma Linda, California are known for eating copious amounts of nuts and legumes, and Okinawans heavily utilize the spice turmeric in their diet.

This suggests that there are different paths to having a long and healthy life. But the similarities are what are especially informative. Here is a breakdown from NPR:

Ikaria, Greece

You may remember this Blue Zone from Buettner’s wonderful 2012 New York Times Magazine article entitled “The Island Where People Forget To Die.”

As we’ve reported, health researchers have long praised the Mediterranean diet for promoting brain and physical health and keeping chronic diseases at bay. So what makes the diet of the people on Ikaria, a small island in the Aegean Sea, so special?

“Their tradition of preparing the right foods, in the right way, I believe, has a lot to do with the island’s longevity,” writes Buettner.

And “what set it apart from other places in the region was its emphasis on potatoes, goat’s milk, honey, legumes (especially garbanzo beans, black-eyed peas, and lentils), wild greens, some fruit and relatively small amounts of fish.”

Ikaria has a few more “top longevity foods:” feta cheese, lemons and herbs like sage and marjoram that Ikarians use in their daily tea. What’s missing that we usually associate with Greece? Lamb. The Ikarians do eat some goat meat, but not often.

Okinawa, Japan

Buettner calls the islands of Okinawa a kind of “Japanese Hawaii” for their laid-back vibe, beaches and fabulous weather. Okinawa also happens to have one of the highest centenarian ratios in the world: About 6.5 in 10,000 people live to 100 (compare that with 1.73 in 10,000 in the U.S.)

Centenarians on Okinawa have lived through a lot of upheaval, so their dietary stories are more complicated than some of the other Blue Zones. As Buettner writes, many healthful Okinawan “food traditions foundered mid-century” as Western influence brought about changes in food habits. After 1949, Okinawans began eating fewer healthful staples like seaweed, turmeric and sweet potato and more rice, milk and meat.

Still, Okinawans have nurtured the practice of eating something from the land and the sea every day. Among their “top longevity foods” are bitter melons, tofu, garlic, brown rice, green tea and shitake mushrooms.

Sardinia, Italy

On this beautiful island in the middle of the Mediterranean, the ratio of centenarian men to women is one to one. That’s quite unusual, because in the rest of the world, it’s five women to every one man who live that long.

The sharp pecorino cheese made from the milk of grass-fed sheep in Sardinia, has high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

Buettner writes that the Sardinians explain their exceptional longevity with their assets such as “clean air,” “locally produced wine,” or because they “make love every Sunday.” But when Buettner brought along a researcher to dig deeper, they found that pastoralism, or shepherding livestock from the mountains to the plains, was most highly correlated with reaching 100.

So what are those ancient Sardinian shepherds eating? You guessed it: goat’s milk and sheep’s cheese — some 15 pounds of cheese per year, on average. Also, a moderate amount of carbs to go with it, like flat bread, sourdough bread and barley. And to balance those two food groups out, Sardinian centenarians also eat plenty of fennel, fava beans, chickpeas, tomatoes, almonds, milk thistle tea and wine from Grenache grapes.

Loma Linda, Calif.

There’s a Blue Zone community in the U.S.? We were as shocked to learn this as you may be. Its members are Seventh-day Adventists who shun smoking, drinking and dancing and avoid TV, movies and other media distractions.

Tofu links sold in Loma Linda, Calif. The Blue Zones research shows that adherents of the Adventist diet, which is mostly plant-based, have lowest rates of heart disease and diabetes in the U.S. and very low rates of obesity.
David Mclain/Courtesy of Blue Zones

They also follow a “biblical” diet focused on grains, fruits, nuts and vegetables, and drink only water. (Some of them eat small amounts of meat and fish.) Sugar is taboo, too. As one Loma Linda centenarian tells Buettner: “I’m very much against sugar except natural sources like fruit, dates or figs. I never eat refined sugar or drink sodas.”

Gary Fraser, a cardiologist and epidemiologist at Loma Linda University and an Adventist himself, has found in studies that Adventists who follow the religion’s teachings lived about 10 years longer than people who didn’t. Another key insight? Pesco-vegetarians in the community, who ate a plant-based diet with up to one serving of fish a day, lived longer than vegan Adventists.

Their top foods include avocados, salmon, nuts, beans, oatmeal, whole wheat bread and soy milk.

Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica

We’d love to be invited for dinner by a centenarian here, where they #putaneggonit all the time. One delicious-sounding meal Buettner was served by a 99-year-old woman (who’s now 107) consisted of rice and beans, garnished with cheese and cilantro, on corn tortillas, with an egg on top.

As Buettner writes, “The big secret of the Nicoyan diet was the ‘three sisters’ of Mesoamerican agriculture: beans, corn and squash.” Those three staples, plus papayas, yams, bananas and peach palms (a small Central American oval fruit high in vitamins A and C), are what fuel the region’s elders over the century.

Here is a visual of the data from three of the earliest discovered Blue Zones (absent Nicoya and Ikaria, though they too meet at the middle):

Source: Wikimedia

So to recap: people in Blue Zones tend to enjoy varied diets made up of fresh and whole foods, particularly greens, nuts, herbs, and seafood; they consume portions that are often smaller than average, with an emphasis on eating only enough to be satiated (rather than stuffed); and they tend to eat little meat proportionally, aside from lean cuts and seafood.

Beyond diet, Blue Zone residents engage in regular moderate exercise – usually walking, gardening, or yard work – and also maintain active social and community lives, especially with their families. They maintain an easy-going and slow pace of life, often setting aside time to relax and de-stress. Smoking is also virtually nonexistent.

In short, the people living in Blue Zones work on all dimensions of a healthy life: not just a healthy diet, but a modest and light one; strong social ties with an even stronger, life-affirming dedication to family and the community; and an appreciation of the finer things in life, like a nice walk or time to unwind, which does wonders for mental health.

Though there is still a lot of research to be done, the evidence seems clear: a long and healthy life doesn’t require anything fancy or technological, but the sort of diet and values that are accessible to most of us — at least up to a point.

It is telling that among the handful of similarities common to all the Blue Zones was strong family and social ties and healthy community life. I think it says as much about the importance of building a good and generous society, and what such a relatively prosperous society may look like, then its does about the importance diet (which is just one dimension of overall health and wellness).

Just as physical and mental health are intricately intertwined, so too are individual and community health. It is much easier and more feasible to live a long and healthy life when your society provides the sort of stability, socioeconomic support, and environment to facilitate it all.

When your economic system requires you to work long, punishing hours at too fast of a pace to relax; when your food distribution system makes fresh produce expensive or inaccessible, and conversely makes less healthy processed food plentiful in its place; and when your society lacks mutually beneficial values of generosity and altruism, it is a lot harder for most people to maximize the potential of their minds and bodies.

Here is hoping that Blue Zones become less of an anomaly and more of a model to emulate and expand elsewhere. We see clear examples of the sorts of behaviors and

Study: Sixty Is Now Middle Age

As humans live longer than ever, it is not surprising that what we define as middle age is also shifting upwards.

A study conducted by researchers from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and Stony Brook University confirmed this, as HuffPo reports:

The researchers used projections of Europe’s population until the year 2050 to look at how an increasing life expectancy changes the definition of “old.” They used different rates of increases, ranging from a stagnant life expectancy to one which grew 1.4 years per decade, to look at the portion of the population who was considered to be old. They looked at both the conventional definition, which considers people over age 65 old, and a new measure, which advances the threshold for old age as overall life expectancy grows.

The findings, published in the journal PLOS ONE, say that as the life expectancy increased with the new measure of old age, the proportion of older people in the population continually fell. The researchers say that we must adjust the threshold we use to determine old age, otherwise the proportion of older people will grow as life expectancy increases.

“What we think of as old has changed over time, and it will need to continue changing in the future as people live longer, healthier lives,” Scherbov said.

It is amazing to live in a time when humans are pushing the limits of both longevity and quality of life: not only are we adding more years to our time on Earth, but we are increasingly managing to maintain relatively healthy mental and physical faculties (especially with regards to Blue Zones and other countries where centenarians are increasingly common).

Given the rapid gains in medicine, nutrition, and public health, who knows how much longer and better people will continue living over the course of the 21st century.

The Shortcomings of Nutritional Science

It seems we cannot go a week without scientific and medical institutions (or even the wider public) flip-flopping on the healthiness or unhealthiness of particular foods. Slate explores what this often chaotic and confusing state of affairs says about nutrition science and its present limitations.

The takeaway from the potato controversy is not that lobbyists sometimes base their campaigns on real science. Rather it’s that the David-and-Goliath narrative of science versus Big Ag may be blinding us to another, even bigger problem: the fact that there is often very little solid science backing recommendations about what we eat.

Most of our devout beliefs about nutrition have not been subjected to a robust, experimental, controlled clinical trial, the type of study that shows cause and effect, which may be why Americans are pummeled with contradictory and confounding nutritional advice. Nutritional bad guys that have fallen from grace in the national consciousness—white potatoes, eggs, nuts, iceberg lettuce—have been redeemed years later. Onetime good guys, like margarine and pasta, have been recast as villains. Cholesterol is back in the probably-won’t-kill-you column after being shunned for 40 years, as of the latest nutritional advice from the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee in February. (That advice was still too timid, according to Cleveland Clinic cardiologist Steve Nissen, who also wants the nutritional guidelines to admit our best evidence suggests fat isn’t bad for you either). And then there’s salt—don’t eat too little, says the newest research. You could die…

…Many nutritional studies are observational studies, including massive ones like the Nurses’ Health Study. Researchers like Willett try to suss out how changes in diet affect health by looking at associations between what people report they eat and how long they live. When many observational studies reach the same conclusions, Willett says, there is enough evidence to support dietary recommendations. Even though they only show correlation, not cause and effect, observational studies direct what we eat.

Apart from their inability to determine cause and effect, there’s another problem with observational studies: The data they’re based on—surveys where people report what they ate the day (or week) before—are notoriously unreliable. Researchers have long known that people (even nurses) misreport, intentionally and unintentionally, what they eat. Scientists politely call this “recall bias”.

The coupling of observational studies and self-reported data leads some observers to the conclusion that we know neither how Americans do eat nor how they should eat. A recent PLOS One article even suggests that several national studies use data that is so wildly off base that the self-reported caloric intake is “incompatible with survival”. If people had eaten as little as they reported, in other words, they would be starving.

Peter Attia, a medical researcher and doctor, started questioning the basis of dietary guidelines when he saw that following them didn’t work for his patients. They didn’t lose weight, even when they virtuously stuck with their diets. When he took a look at the research supporting the advice he was giving to his patients, he saw shoddy science. Attia estimates that 16,000 nutritional studies are published each year, but the majority of them are deeply flawed: either poorly controlled clinical trials, observational studies, or animal studies. “Those studies wouldn’t pass muster in another field”, he told me.

It is little wonder that quackery, ignorance, and deceit are increasingly taking hold of people’s health decisions. Not only does all this contradictory or ambiguous evidence make room for all sorts of unverified or dangerous claims, but they erode public trust in science and medicine — even if specialists finally get something right with certainty, they will likely be met with incredulity or apathy.

It is not unlike how the inefficiencies of the U.S. health care system, combined with the predations of big pharmaceutical companies, taints evidence-backed medicine as a whole and sends people into the arms of frauds and scammers. With distrust of institutions and authoritative bodies — political, academic, and religious — at an all time high, it seems health and lifestyle choice will be increasingly determined by individual fiat, errors in reasoning, anecdote, or other unreliable bases.

Of course, this is not to condemn all scientific bodies or the scientific approach as a whole. The article makes clear that while a lot of the misconceptions around nutrition and health are attributed to “shoddy” research, various psychological biases, as well as the sheer complexity of measuring all the variables involved with health, make the endeavor a difficult one to pursue in itself.

Ultimately, nutrition science is still a new and burgeoning field of study, and I trust that it will be self-correcting in time, especially now that both the public and establishment are scrutinizing these problems. But while we try to work out better and more reliable ways to learn about what is good for our bodies, there are going to be a lot of mistakes — and outright fakery — made.

Moreover, let us not overstate the problem: while the minutiae and other details are an open questions, there are still general rules that seem to hold true: smoking cigarettes is broadly unhealthy, a plant-centered diet is generally the healthiest, regular physical activity is beneficial, and so on. Of course, we will have to see what more can be said about such conventional health wisdom.

Writing Does a Brain and Body Good

For those who love to write, the act itself — of creating new worlds, characters, and narratives, or of simply recording thoughts, experiences, and musings — is rewarding enough on its own. But an article in Mic.com cites a growing body of research suggesting that writing of any kind has palpable benefits to physical and mental health.

James W. Pennebaker has been conducting research on writing to heal for years at the University of Texas at Austin. “When people are given the opportunity to write about emotional upheavals, they often experience improved health,” Pennebaker writes. “They go to the doctor less. They have changes in immune function.”

Why? Pennebaker believes this act of expressive writing allows people to take a step back and evaluate their lives. Instead of obsessing unhealthily over an event, they can focus on moving forward. By doing so, stress levels go down and health correspondingly goes up.

You don’t have to be a serious novelist or constantly reflecting on your life’s most traumatic moments to get these great benefits. Even blogging or journaling is enough to see results. One study found that blogging might trigger dopamine release, similar to the effect from running or listening to music.

I am sure the results vary wildly from person to person, but I can attest to writing having a calming effect on me. At the very least, it offers a nice escape. What are your thoughts?

Carnivores of the World

It turns out that one country has famously carnivorous America beat: the small European nation of Luxembourg (which hosts a lot of transients and expatriate workers from around the world, thus possibly driving consumption higher).

The following graph,courtesy of The Economist, lists the countries where meat is most popular.

Carnivores of the World

It is interesting to see how some types of meat prevail in certain countries: Argentina, perhaps unsurprisingly, leads the way in beef consumption; people in Kuwait, Israel, and the Caribbean nation of St. Lucia love poultry; and Austrians, Danes, and Spaniards favor pork. While developing countries like China, India, and Brazil are driving the overall demand for meat, people in the developed world eat far more per person.

Here is how meat consumption has changed over the years, according to The Economist:

Cow (beef and veal) was top of the menu in the early 1960s, accounting for 40% of meat consumption, but by 2007 its share had fallen to 23%. Pig is now the animal of choice, with around 99m tonnes consumed. Meanwhile advances in battery farming and health-related changes in Western diets have helped propel poultry from 12% to 31% of the global total.

One wonders how much longer we can sustain such increasingly meat-dominated diets. Raising livestock is a drain on finite resources like land, water, and grain (which could all be put to better, human-centered use). It also produces a lot of pollution, including the kind that contributes to climate change. While China and other rising countries are routinely blamed for driving up demand — which is indeed the case — it is still the richer world that consumes far more resources per person.

The Perils Of Too Much Sitting

The desk job is much vaunted in the U.S. for offering, among other alleged perks, the benefit of being able to sit all day. But while this may seem more comfortable and less draining than standing or running around, such a sedentary existence can bring significant negative health consequences in the long-term.

While there is no shortage of news articles and studies highlighting the modern problem of “over-sitting” — see here, here, and here — the following video does a good job of summarizing why our bodies are so susceptible to this comfy practice and what we can do about it.

In essence, our bodies were not evolved for so little movement over a long period of time. Everything from out skeletal and muscular system, to even our blood circulation, depends on regular doses of activity, even if it just standing, stretching, or walking.

As someone who went from seven years of working the fast-paced world of retail, to now a little over two years at a desk job, I can definitely feel the difference in my health. Were it not for regularly thirty-minute intervals of stretching and standing, as well as two to three walks around the block each day during work, I would likely be in a lot worse shape (as I had been before I learned these things and started trying to counteract them).

I owe it to my job for allowing such freedom of movement, as not enough workplaces do so despite the known risks. More employers should implement worksite wellness programs or at least allow their employees an opportunity to step out for walks, stretches, and light aerobics.

I shall reflect on these things as I go for my second walk. Feel free to weigh in as always.

 

The Woman Who Curbed An Ebola Outbreak In Africa’s Largest Country

Nigeria had never had a case of Ebola before, so when Dr. Adadevoh, a UK-trained consultant endocrinologist, ordered he be tested for the disease and placed in quarantine, she had to stand firm against those who disagreed.

— The Independenton Dr. Ameyo Stella Adadevoh and her quick identification of Nigeria’s patient zero.

Although it sadly ravaged three nations in West Africa, Ebola’s impact in neighboring countries like Senegal and Nigeria had been successfully minimized. As the largest country in Africa and the seventh largest in the world, Nigeria would have likely suffered even more horrific losses.

It is also worth pointing out that the number of new cases in infected countries were just one percent of what was estimated. So even though it did a lot of damage to afflicted nations, the Ebola outbreak could have been much worse — all the more remarkable considering the shortfall in funding.

The hundreds of unsung health workers who willingly put themselves on the frontlines, and in many cases lost their lives in the process, deserve an incredible amount of praise and recognition.

Mindfulness and Fitness

The practice of mindfulness is all the rage these days, helping to improve focus, productivity, and overall mental health. But could something associated with meditation and tranquility also give a boost to workouts and other rigorous activity?

According to the New York Times, the benefits of mindfulness can extend to just about every healthy endeavor, helping to boost performance in more ways than one. Consider a recent Dutch study cited in the article:

In essence, the scientists were trying to determine how much their volunteers exercised, how satisfied they were with that exercise, how mindful they were during exercise, and how those variables affected each other.

It turned out, unsurprisingly, that the people who reported being most satisfied with exercise were also the people who exercised the most, and vice versa.

But mindfulness also played a pronounced role in making exercise feel satisfying, the data showed. People who reported being mindful during exercise also generally reported satisfaction with exercise.

“The message is that mindfulness may amplify satisfaction, because one is satisfied when positive experiences with physical activity become prominent,” says Kalliopi-Eleni Tsafou, a Marie Curie Research Fellow at Utrecht University who led the study. “For those experiences to be noticed,” she continued, “one must become aware of them. We would argue that this can be achieved by being mindful.”

In other words, if you focus on the small but important details: your body’s motions – the environment in which you are working out, your breathing – you gain a better appreciate of what you are doing, and with that derive more pleasure and thus motivation.

This helps explain why some people take to exercise better than others. They make fitness a lifestyle, and genuinely enjoy getting up early in the morning for a jog, or pushing through that daunting weight set. You will never find an athlete or fitness buff who doesn’t love what they do.

Of course, mindfulness takes time and practice to master, but that is why being patient and making healthiness a long-term, continual go is so vital. It may not be easy at first, but with enough attention on the important but neglected aspects of exercise, you will better find the joys and benefits that will keep you coming for more – to the benefit of your mind, body, and spirit.

As someone who is trying to boost his mental and physical health, I definitely see the merit of this approach. I often have difficulty sticking to workout regimens longer than a week or so, and at this point I am all out of ideas besides just training my mind to overcome a lifetime of sedentary habits (I only got into exercise and active living about three or four years ago).

What are your thoughts?