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Aerobics for the brain? Fitness experts praise mindfulness meditation

By Dorene Internicola

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Fitness experts call it bicep curls for the brain and aerobics for the mind. Whatever the name, athletes and gym addicts are discovering how mindfulness meditation can enliven a workout routine and invigorate a sports performance.

They say that mindfulness meditation, which focuses on the present moment to clear the mind, can help an exerciser overcome boredom and an athlete zero in on the task at hand.

“Mindfulness meditation is a hot topic actively studied in sports medicine,” said Gregory Chertok, a sports psychology consultant with the American College of Sports Medicine.

The art of living in the present moment is a critical skill in sports, Chertok said, because all performance occurs in the present and lamenting past failures can lead to muscle tension, anxiety and mental chatter that impairs concentration.

He said recent research indicated that meditation improves attention and sharpens impulse control.

One 2014 study published in the Psychological Science journal showed that 15 minutes of focused-breathing meditation may help athletes and exercisers make smarter choices.

“Among the factors that prevent people from exercising is fear of boredom,” said Chertok, who advises clients to use the many meditation apps that are available. “I know a lot of athletes do,” he said.

Los Angeles-based yoga teacher Ashley Turner considers the meditation she has practiced for 18 years a workout for her mind and emotions.

“If I don’t do it, I notice the change,” said Turner, creator of the DVD "Element: Yoga for Strength & Flexibility."

A 2011 study by Massachusetts General Hospital researchers indicating that 30 minutes of daily meditation resulted in increased gray matter in the hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with memory and learning, and a reduction in the amygdala, a region connected to anxiety and stress.

“If you think you have no time to meditate, how much time do you spend worrying?” she said.

Newcomers should start slowly, said Turner, whose online Meditation 101 conference last month drew more than 25,000 people.

“Begin by just following your breath, rather than by trying to meditate,” she said. “Then add one minute every week until you reach 20 or 30 minutes.”

American Council on Exercise fitness consultant Jessica Matthews said while exercise helps to reduce stress, trying to find the time to work out can cause it.

"Personally, meditation and pranayama (yogic breathing techniques) were instrumental in my success of preparing for and completing my first half marathon last year," she said.

Matthews teaches meditation in her health classes at Miramar College in San Diego, where many students employ the techniques before a game.

She advises them to focus on each breath and when the mind drifts, to draw awareness back.

“Meditation is not just for the yogi on the mountaintop,” she said.

(Editing by Patricia Reaney and Lisa Von Ahn)

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