A couple weeks ago, I came home from a run feeling totally rejuvenated. I’d gone into it thinking about a relationship dilemma, and by the time I finished my loop, I’d found resolution in a calm and levelheaded manner—it felt like a meditative experience.
That’s not the first time I’ve likened running to meditation. Whenever people ask me if I meditate, I usually pause and say something like, “Well, I don’t meditate, per se, in that staring-at-a-candle-for-20-minutes sort of way. But I do run a lot, and I feel like they both produce similar mind-clearing results, so they’re kind of the same thing.”
Experts agree that it is possible to practice meditation while running (more on that later), but to say they’re equivalent misses some important points. Let’s start with some basic facts. Defined, meditation is essentially anything in which you intentionally set aside time for yourself and practice fixed attention or mental contemplation. “There are tons of different forms of meditation out there—prayer meditation, music meditation, and the list goes on—but their common link is that they all require periods of deep, intentional focus,” says Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D., a mindfulness meditation expert and author of The Now Effect.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t focus on my runs at all. In fact, I do just the opposite: I completely zone out. I let my mind wander, and I think about a million things at once. Sometimes, I think so much that I resolve a problem, and other times, it just helps me get through the task to completion—either way, I often feel rejuvenated afterward.
This feeling of rejuvenation seems like the result of a meditative experience, but in my case, it’s likely just a byproduct of exercise. See, working out provides all sorts of mental benefits. At a basic level, the physical stress of the activity triggers the release of a protein called BDNF, or brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a growth factor that supports the health of neurons and plays a role in mental processing and memory. Additionally, exercise triggers the release of endorphins, a brain chemical that blocks pain signals in the body and may prompt feelings of euphoria, as well as the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine helps control the brain’s reward center and stimulates feelings of pleasure. Serotonin plays a role in mood-regulation, and low levels of this chemical are associated with depression. These factors all likely contribute to the immediate mind-clearing and mood-boosting effects of exercise, as well as the long-term management of stress, anxiety, and depression.
So where does meditation come in? Well, that’s up to you. Running and other everyday activities that provide a mental break can be forms of meditation when you do them the right way. “Even though practicing formal, seated meditation is always going to deliver the most effective results, you can turn anything into your meditation, really, whether it’s running or even just chopping vegetables,” explains Sharon Salzberg, a Massachusetts-based meditation expert and author of Real Happiness at Work. The secret? Apply the fundamentals of mindfulness exercises to those activities intentionally, Salzberg continues, rather than assuming that you’re meditating automatically.
There are two major ways to make that happen. The first is to focus on touch sensations, this is, your physical movements, rather than your thoughts. Physical touch helps bring you back to the moment at hand, which is central to concentrative practice. “One of the main premises of meditation is to learn to let go of distractions and start over. And often, what happens is we tend to get lost in our thoughts and let our minds wander. So when you zero in on physical touches, you’re basically dismissing those wandering thoughts and bringing your attention back to the moment,” says Salzberg. That ability to start fresh is precisely what trains your brain to separate yourself from thoughts and emotions to be more even-keeled over time.
But how do you focus on touch, exactly? It’s easier than you think. “If you’re running, zeroing in on the physical means paying attention to your breathing, listening to your feet hit the pavement, and, yes, ditching the music,” explains Cooper Chou, a New York City-based yoga and meditation teacher at New York Health and Racquet Club, who is also a runner. When you’re not blasting your favorite tunes, you’re better able to avoid the “zone out” effect. You can hear your inhales, exhales, and your pavement patterns, all of which remind you of the physical act you’re performing right now, Chou explains. The same goes for cooking and even sewing. To get the physical benefit, focus on the actual chopping of the vegetables or the feel of the needle against the yarn. “Listen to the knife cut through the fresh veggies, and pay attention to the rhythm of your chops. Feel the softness of the yarn against your fingers, and notice the pace at which you’re using the needle,” Salzberg explains. All of those physical touches reinforce the mindfulness exercise and remind you of what you’re doing in the current moment, so you’re less likely to let your thoughts wander elsewhere.
The other way to bring formal meditation principles into everyday activities is to act with intention. That means conducting yourself in a mindful way. Rather than letting things happen randomly, choose to act in a certain manner based on your core values. As a result, you will be left with a clearer sense of purpose and self, which will help you react to events in the future more calmly.
For runners, acting with intention is all about detaching oneself from the end goal. “Rather than think about the 10-mile mark, runners should set the intention to be in the present moment,” Chou explains. This means that it may not be the best idea to carry a tracking device if you want to treat your run as your meditation time. Thinking too much about the future and where you’re going will distract you from where you are. For home chefs, cooking with intention starts at the grocery store. “Start by choosing the healthiest ingredients at the store, so you know you’re putting quality foods into your body no matter what,” Chou continues. Then light some candles and put on soothing lyric-free background music. “When you intentionally make cooking a calming experience, you’re more likely to stay in the moment.”
The exact benefits of bringing mindfulness practices into everyday life haven’t been studied, so no one really knows for sure what the effects are, but an educated guess is that some form of contemplative practice is better than none at all. Still, learning the basics of seated meditation can assist in your ability to practice moving meditations, and experts agree that time spent on the cushion offers the best benefits as it minimizes external distractions.
Think of the difference as a computer screen with multiple windows open, explains Ian White, a meditation and yoga teacher at Red Mountain Resort in Saint George, Utah. “Bringing meditation practices into everyday life is like running two computer programs at the same time rather than just one. It still works, and you’ll get some benefits, but it’ll be less intense and won’t be as high-quality.” In other words, when you’re meditating, you’re sitting and thinking of one thing and one thing only, whereas when you’re meditating while doing something else, you’ve got both things going on. “You have to focus on running when you’re running or else you’ll fall, and you have to focus on cooking or else you’ll chop your fingers open. So even though you can do a partial deep focus and try to block everything else out, the fact is, the effect is still stronger when you don’t have that anything else in the first place,” he says.
As for me? I tried running without music and focusing on my breathing and not thinking about time, but I realized it’s not for me. I like my regular running routine with loud music, a fitness tracker, and Instagram pictures on the side; and I didn’t feel as refreshed after I tried it in a meditative style. But that’s okay! To compensate, I experimented with cooking meditation, and I loved it. So in the future, when people ask me if I meditate, I’ll say, “No, but I do cook a lot, and when I do, I intentionally try to focus deeply on the action, so it’s kind of the same thing.” And this time, I’ll be a lot more accurate.