Thirty year old athletes who run 40 - 50 miles a week can wind up with decalcified bones, decreased bones mass, increased risk of stress fractures and scoliosis (sideways curvature of the spine) - their skeletons look like those of seventy year olds.
Robert M Sapolsky, Biologist & Author
Sport and exercise are good for us on a number of levels and are always worthy of encouragement, particularly if you actually enjoy what you’re doing. However, it is beneficial to understand what is going on on a physiological level so we can make the most informed choices about how to improve our conditioning, achieve peak performance, and ultimately, to feel good.
Interestingly, the ‘runners high’ we experience when we do excessive levels of exercise is due to a large release of endorphins triggered by something called stress-induced analgesia. What that means is, the body receives the signal that all this activity must mean there is an emergency situation on our hands and we’d better release all those endorphins so we can run through the pain barrier while we flee the sabre tooth tiger. This biological response was not intended for regular recreational activation, however!
When the stress response kicks in, as well as an endorphin rush, we also tend to release other stress hormones which will shake up the way our body operates. Our levels of the steroid hormone glucocorticoid, which is responsible for so much biological mischief when found in excess, becomes elevated, even when we are completely resting. If this happens frequently, we are at risk of developing osteoporosis which is a cruel outcome for anyone who has been athletic in their life. We find that the tone of our nervous system weighs in favour of a more stressful set of responses in the face of life’s everyday challenges. And we see that our reproductive hormone levels fall; males develop smaller testes and will have less functional sperm and females often tend to develop irregular cycles and often have vastly more fertility issues. The reason appears to be an excess of a male sex hormone known as adrenal androgen, and when we are constantly putting ourselves under physical stress, and there is a depletion of our fat stores, we can’t convert these androgens to oestrogen and so reproductive capabilities become impaired.
In short, just because a healthy amount of exercise is good for you, doesn’t mean that insanely large amounts of it are insanely good for the body. Too much exercise can be as bad as too little.
So where does meditation fit in? Well firstly, it reduces the number of stress hormones in our circulation such as cortisol and glucocorticoids. Not only does this mean that we now have much more balanced hormonal make-ups and much healthier bones, organs and systems, but it also goes hand in hand with better performance. The British Journal of Sports Medicine recently found that just four week’s meditation led to increased performance in scores by elite shooters for example. Many of our students have reported many such performance highs, including the shattering of many Personal Best times within the first few days and weeks of learning, much greater hand-eye coordination, and feeling more zen and in the flow with the activity itself.
Meditation also reduces the lactic acid build up in our systems after we’ve completed the activity. It aids recovery times. It supports the healing of injuries by increasing oxygen flow and nutrient transmission to affected areas, and it helps us achieve more powerfully restful sleep, enabling us to feel more energised when playing or competing.
We also have a much more balanced nervous system, allowing us to not only enjoy the high of exercise but also to stay balanced and calm during our day. And the incidences of osteoporosis and infertility amongst the most active members of the sporting fraternity are greatly reduced by the hormonal balance brought about by meditation.
All the while we are the beneficiaries of all those happy hormone rushes that come when we meditate. We get to experience the runner’s high even when sitting down.
If you like to do active exercise, then there’s no finer way of restoring balance and enhancing performance than adding meditation into the mix. And if you have to choose between the two? Meditation will give you the vast majority of attributes that sport does with far less of the side effects. Game on.
And if you use sports and exercise as a way to relax, then meditation might be an easier way to achieve that. As one of our clients put it, “I’d have to cycle 100 miles to feel as relaxed and carefree as I do when I meditate, this is such an easier way to get there!”
For professional athletes, reducing the roots of anxiety can help him or her to focus and deal with the fear of failure. The reduced stress hormones also mean we feel fewer nerves before or between events, preparing the mind so that the body will compete without error in those critical seconds. It is for this reason that top athletes such as Michael Jordan found meditation to be such an essential part of their game. And now more and more athletes are cottoning on to the life-giving and performance enhancing benefits of meditation.
Other scientifically validated benefits for athletes are: Improved Physiological Functioning; Improved Cardiovascular Efficiency; Improved Respiratory Efficiency (Increased Vital Capacity); Reduction of Blood Pressure to More Ideal Levels; Increased Haemoglobin Concentration. Improved Athletic Performance and Neuromuscular Integration: Increased Running Speed; Improved Standing Broad Jump; Improved Agility; Improved Co-ordination; Faster Reaction Times.
And if you don’t enjoy your exercise, and you feel like you’re slogging away in the gym while the health and wellbeing benefits appear to be much more muted, perhaps finding an enjoyable alternative will be best.
I meditate before a rugby match and find it relaxes me and enables me to focus on the game.
Piers, Harlequins Under 16's, Brighton