A funny thing happened at the gym the other day.

I caught myself smiling as I pounded the elliptical.  In fact, this has been happening all week.

That’s not all.  These days, I’m actually looking forward to going to the gym.  It’s something I want to do.  And in just the last week, my workouts have become more intense.  I’m working out longer — 45 minutes as opposed to 35 — and at higher levels of difficulty.  Also, I’m not checking the clock every five minutes to see how much longer I have to endure.

So I asked myself:  Self, what gives?

I think the answer is:  Meditation.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been meditating nearly every day, anywhere from 10 to about 45 minutes, depending on how much time I have and my powers of concentration at the moment.  I took up meditation a little over five years ago, but haven’t been practicing with any real dedication or discipline until fairly recently.

I know it’s made a big difference in my emotional health.  And, although I can’t prove it, I think it’s making a difference in my physical well-being as well.

I have more energy.  I feel the need to be more active.  This past week, I went to the gym six days out of seven — twice in one day a couple of times, first to do strength training and then to do the elliptical. 

My whole workout experience is different.  I turn on the Rolling Stones, close my eyes and let my mind wander.  I hardly notice that I’m running at all, although I do feel the sweat when it rolls down my face.  No matter; I just keep going.

It is, in fact, a bit like meditation (although I don’t listen to the Stones or any other music while meditating).

My heart rate seems to regulate more quickly too.  By slowing down and lengthening my breath during my cool-down, I can bring my heart rate to 120 or below in about four minutes.

Afterward, I’m happy.  I feel good — and not good as in “oh my gosh, I’m so glad this is over with.”  Really good.

All this, of course, is just my own experience, and my own theory as to why I’m able to work out more effectively and even enjoy it.  I tried to find research that would support or explain my experience, but it doesn’t seem to exist– at least not yet. 

To be sure, there’s a lot of research out there on the effects of meditation.  It seems clear that meditation can help relieve stress and anxiety.  For example, the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital reports that meditation induces a “relaxation response” that includes changes in metabolism, heart rate, respiration, blood pressure and brain chemistry.   And a 2009 study found that meditation can actually change the structure of the brain.  In the study, people who meditated 30 minutes a day for eight weeks demonstrated measurable changes in gray-matter density in those parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress.

There have been some studies on the physiological effects of meditation, but few are regarded as rigorous or conclusive.   In 2007,  the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH),  published an independent, peer-reviewed, meta-analysis of the state of meditation research. The report reviewed 813 studies involving five very broad categories of meditation: mantra meditation, mindfulness meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, and Qigong.

The conclusions were, well, inconclusive:

Scientific research on meditation practices does not appear to have a common theoretical perspective and is characterized by poor methodological quality. Firm conclusions on the effects of meditation practices in health care cannot be drawn based on the available evidence. Future research on meditation practices must be more rigorous in the design and execution of studies and in the analysis and reporting of results.

The report says there is no theoretical explanation of the health effects from meditation that is common to all meditation techniques. 

It seems to me, though, that the researchers lacked a solid definition as to what meditation really is.  Yoga, for example, is related to meditation, but it is not meditation.  Same goes for Tai Chi, from my limited knowledge of it.  I’m not familiar with Qigong, but a quick look at a few websites suggests that it is a form of meditation.  However, in this meta-analysis, anything smacking of various “New Age’ practices appears to have gotten lumped into the convenient catch-all of meditation.

Ohms away, huh?

That said, I hope that future research approaches meditation with more seriousness and rigor.  I believe that meditation holds many answers for us about our emotional and physical health, although those answers may be difficult to grasp.

 I learned how to meditate from Sharon Bauer, who, with her husband Rudy, leads the Washington Center for Consciousness Studies.  While I’m not going to delve into technique here, I highly recommend their website as a source for those who are interested.  They also offer live, Internet-based group meditation for subscribers — check it out!

I’d love to understand how meditation works, but I’m not waiting for research to tell me what I already know:  that meditation is a very healthy practice, with positive effects for both the mind and the body.