Physical exercise vs. meditation

runner in redBoth meditation and physical exercise are activities that may reduce our vulnerability to stress and increase our quality of life. In Acem Meditation, this happens as unsettled tensions in our mind are met with free mental repetition of a meditation sound. Physical exercise, on the other hand, brings us in better shape, increases our bodily strength and improves our physical and mental well-being, which might improve our general functional ability.

Meditation cannot replace physical exercise. One does not get stronger or in better physical shape by meditating. Very few meditators would argue that physical inactivity is desirable. Meditation and motion is even mutually enriching. Still, I believe that at times, there might also be a contradiction between meditation and physical exercise.

Can we exercise our problems away?
In my experience, physical exercise may sometimes pull in the opposite direction of the meditative movement towards greater inner openness. This might particularly be the case when exercise is used as a means to handling psychological uneasiness.

Some people seem to exercise more when life is hard, or use exercise as a means to handling more general life frustrations. For sure, physical exercise might very often be helpful in such situations. At the same time, however, I feel that it might be worth discussing if intense physical exercise is always the best medicine when life challenges knock on the door: Can, for instance, one’s marital problems, the lack of enthusiasm for one’s work, or the indefinable feeling that something in life is not exactly how it should be, best be dealt with by running at high speeds through the forests, signing up for hard spinning in a gym, or by lifting heavy weights? We might come closer to an answer to this question by looking at two different aspects of physical exercise.

yogaExercise as a mental opener
Often when we do physical exercise, we also open our minds to some degree. What we achieve through physical activity can probably, at least to some extent, thus be compared to the meditation process: When we exercise, we give the brain a ‘break’ where thoughts are allowed to wander relatively freely. Consciously or unconsciously, we thereby give ourselves an opportunity to process and soften some of our mental tensions.

Some forms of exercise, such as yoga, actively cultivate openness to inner impulses in combination with physical movements. However, for people who are in good physical shape, a similar mental openness can probably be present also during more ordinary physical exercise with relatively high intensity, such as running or weight training. Using the Acem vocabulary, we could say that even quite hard physical exercise can be performed with a relatively ‘free mental attitude’, leading to at least some kind of mental ‘ventilation’. It is hard to see any disadvantages about this aspect of physical exercise.

Endorphins – a double-edged sword?
On the other hand, anyone who has exercised hard and regularly over time is familiar with the effect of endorphins – the hormone that is released in the body during physical activity. The wellbeing and energy of an ‘endorphin rush’ can be intense. For some time, it might almost feel like all problems and challenges in one’s life have disappeared, as might also happen, for instance, when we are drunk from alcohol. Endorphins, however, also share another quality with alcohol: They solve very few, if any, problems – even if it might feel that way when we are on a ‘high.’

There is probably nothing wrong about an occasional endorphin rush. Hard physical exercise can also give a highly satisfying sense of mastery. In that way, it has a value for its own sake.

However, I do have a feeling that endorphins for some people at certain times may also provide an escape from life challenges. The meditative experience, on the other hand, is that being able to look existential challenges straight into the eye can be very beneficial for growth. In meditation, we seek to open ourselves to what is in our minds, even if it is painful or difficult. Many people have the experience that over time, this might make us more sensitive to the needs of ourselves and others, and more capable of coping with life’s big and small challenges.

sportPhysical exercise as a potential ‘closer’?
Physical exercise, on the other hand, can probably either be a mental ‘opener’ or a mental ‘closer’, depending on how it is performed. In my experience, intense physical activity can be used to push difficult thoughts and emotions away – thus constituting a possible parallel to ‘concentrated’ repetition of the meditation sound during an Acem meditation session. From a meditative perspective, we might therefore ask: If one persistently uses endorphins as an ‘intoxicant’ to escape disturbing thoughts or emotions, how might that affect one’s ability to handle life challenges over time?

It is not my intention to give a categorical answer to this question. In any case, however, it might be worth reflecting upon what is one’s basic goal by doing physical exercise.

And, from time to time, it is probably also wise to let one’s body remain entirely still, and let what is, just be. By doing so, we may allow our uneasy or worrisome feelings to tell us that it is possible to live our lives in even better ways than what we do today. Probably, some of the potential of meditation lies exactly therein – not as a replacement for, but as a useful supplement to, physical exercise.

14 Comments

  1. I once had a friend tell me running is a substitute for meditation. In both activities one’s relationship with their mental chatter changes. At the time I wasn’t sure how to express my disagreement to his statement, despite being a practitioner of meditation and avid exerciser.

    So, thanks for writing this article! I think I can now handle this type of discussion in the future. I really like the point you made in that no one solves their frustrations, lack of enthusiasm, or subtle discontentment through exercise. This I feel is the key difference between meditation and exercise. In exercise, we push ourselves and reap the physical and mental benefits. But in meditation we learn something of ourselves. We learn of our weaknesses, our poor habits, our wandering mind. We learn something of wisdom and contentment and smiling (although its hard to say exactly what that is we learn).

    However, I strongly, strongly believe in exercise as being an ingredient of health and happiness. I’m glad therefore that you mentioned exercise and meditation as going hand in hand, even being supplements to each other. I personally feel that a light workout and some quiet stretching before meditation in the morning does wonders. It’s funny, I have known this for a long time – the complementary nature of meditation and exercise – but it is clicking now in a different light. Perhaps because I write about it.

    Thank you for listening!

    Jared
    dontwastethislife.blogspot.com

  2. petterme

    I am glad you liked my post, Jared! I think you expand upon my topic with a good distinction between meditation and exercise (pushing oneself vs. learning about oneself). This was my first post here on The Meditation Blog, so I was excited to realise that it had been read and commented by someone ‘out there’!

  3. Johannes

    Very interesting to read this as I’ve just been thinking about this relationship between psysical excersise and meditation. This surely gave me a new perspective on things.

  4. As I was reading your post, this thought kept coming to my mind and finally read it in your concluding paragraph. That we cannot term meditation as superior to exercising or vise versa is so true. Like our bodies need everything from sugar to carbs, fats to antioxidants and proteins to salts, our mind too needs a dose of meditation. It may take any form; keeping silent for a while, deep breathing or chanting. Physical exercise keeps out body fit and releases endorphins that make us feel healthy and happy. Likewise meditation allows us to reflect and introspect what our inner self wants. It relieves stress, lightens our head and gives us a positive direction in life.

  5. Brian

    Meditation also releases endorphins as far as i understand. So whether you are active or sitting the state of meditation is a mental state and the result is often dependent on the motivation or goal or lack of goal as far as i have experienced. The result seems to be dependent on the things that define the reason why you do what it is you are doing or lack there of (zen).

    I have no ability to compare other peoples mental states or experiences with words or my own experiences, since I am still a simple person I only know my own experiences. So if someone says running is for them mediation it could very well be, I don’t see the need to argue that, there is no way for me to know their mental state and it could solve problems and create open awareness for them. I think the answer to this question is physical exercise mediation for me is it could be

    I guess more interesting is knowing the motivation of the activity. If the motivation is to run 5k in x number of minutes then that level of mediation maybe less then if ones motivation is “I am going to run 5k and maintain my concentration on the feeling of my soles contacting the ground”, but who knows someone could hit a sweet spot mentally with the first motivation. There are so many levels of meditation. Meditation to me is sometimes like a sport because as you train you gain certain skills or knowledge which allow you to take it further.

    I think this is one reason why it is best to have a good trainer if you want to be a profesional athlete you have a trainer, but if you just want to do a bit of sport you can train yourself and have good results but the results would probably be better with a trainer. Some exceptional people could possibly be able to train themselves all the way to the professional level, it seems to me possible but again I think that is an exception since i do not known any pros like that, but they must exist in some country.

    I think meditation is similar you can reach a certain level on your own in whichever way you approach it but for the best result you need a trainer or teacher who knows how to reach the highest level. At which point you will probably get specific trainings. Who knows, if you get Tibetan teacher they may ask you to 100,000 prostrations very physical and very meditative! Just like a Russian trainer will have you do other exercises then an american… There are many roads to the same destination.

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  7. Christian H. Rafn

    Interesting topic. I never thought of physical exercise and meditation as mutually exclusive, on the contrary. But there are some aspects of physical activities that I miss:

    1) Physical exercise strengthens your body, and in the the days and weeks after training, you will be able to endure more, becasue your body can take more. To a certain extent.

    2) The mental attitude needed to go through tough training is a good “resilience” training, which makes you better prepared for stress. Top athletes know more about this than us normal exercisers, I would guess

    3) After training hard, your mind relaxes. At least it feels like that.

    PS.
    Going for a walk (not training hard) seems to me to be an interesting compromise.
    It gives me a break, lets my mind wonder more easily than during hard training, and my physical shape increases somewhat. But just somewhat.

    Good choice of topic Pettme. I know who you are. Spasiba!

  8. Hello Everyone,
    As we know that Physical exercise the basic need of our body. we have almost sitting jobs nowadays and spend most of the time in sitting. It can effect our body and for overcoming from this problem we should include exercises in our daily habits. So this website post is good to provide the physical exercise information.

  9. alfred

    Thank you for a great article. In my own experience, physical exersice is not a way of escaping from lives problems, it is what makes me strong enough to deal with them and like in meditation look them directly in the eyes. If I start my day with an intense exersise I can deal with everything that day brings me with much bigger ease, and I think that problems are only problems when you mentally label them as problems. What is a problem more then an Idea or a thought of something that makes you feel anxious? if during the endorfin rush you feel like there are no problems, then that is true in the way that you no longer label it as a problem but only a solution that you can either solve or accept. In either way it is not a problem. Exersise for me also makes it much easier for me to go into a medatetive state of mindfullness during may daily life wish keeps me centered and clear. thanks again 🙂

  10. Robin

    I have been interested in how others view this topic because, often when I exercise I feel as if I’ve reached a meditative state of mind. It’s never in an attempt to escape problems…it just happens. Usually when cycling or hiking for long periods of time. In my “normal” activities, my mind is firing at all times. But when I exercise for long enough, my mind goes completely quiet and at peace as I simply observe my breathing and movements. That experience is what led me here…to see if these very different activities could have the same mental effects long-term, since the short-term effects seem to be very similar, apart from the physical aspect of exercise vs. sitting still. If I can get the same benefits from exercise, then that would be a much better use of my time. I’d be curious to know if there have ever been any studies specifically comparing the effects of meditation vs. exercise.

  11. Fred Wiggins

    That was good. In fact ot was assum. I was just asking myself the question, does meditation and physical exercise compliment each other. Thank you

  12. Federico

    Exercise is my meditation

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