One of the ways I have helped many athletes is by teaching them to stimulate their relaxation response through techniques like meditation. After training combat athletes for years, I found that many of them had a lot of stress and anxiety. Go figure. Fighters get stressed out, and they need help to rein it in.
The relaxation response is the exact opposite of the stress response, sometimes called fight-or-flight. While I employ methods that stimulate the relaxation response in athletes because I know them to be effective, I can’t say I ever knew the science behind it until now. In fact, until a recent PLoS ONE study I’m not sure there was any study examining which genes were affected by meditation.
In this new study, researchers looked at people with at least four years of experience mediating and also meditation newbies. The experienced group was allowed to meditate using their own preferred methods, where the inexperienced group was trained in meditation for eight weeks. The researchers then studied the genes expressed by each group to find which pathways were stimulated by meditation and how it affected each group.
The researchers discovered a substantial array of potential benefits. The genes activated were mostly energy and stress related. It seems as though meditation helps to protect mitochondria, the energy producing parts of our cells, against stress. Meditation also improved insulin function and increased the production of ATPase, an enzyme primarily responsible for producing the building block molecules of energy in our body.
Interestingly, these benefits were produced in each participant, no matter their experience level, but those with greater experience had especially strong results. This would indicate that practicing the skills associated with meditative practices does actually improve the benefits. While I’ve seen this in athletes I train, it’s cool to see it on paper too. Meditation is a skill just like any other, and you can be better at it.
It’s plain for anyone to see that meditation has important effects on relaxation, and so also benefits sleep. It’s an important part of the daily process for athletes I have trained for this reason alone. Meditation aids with sleep by mitigating stress, particularly physical stress through consciously reducing psychological stress. With a lot of meditative practice, it could also help to calm excitable athletes before competition.
According to this study, it seems the obvious benefits to stress reduction aren’t all we have to look forward to. Apparently meditation also improves energy production and utilization. This is a double whammy for athletes. Less stress (read: better recovery) and more energy both mean better quality workouts and competitions. Over the long term you won’t find a cheaper and simpler athletic booster.
Meditation can be done anytime and anywhere, and you don’t even need to make time in your day for it. If you haven’t gotten on this bandwagon yet, today is the day.
1. Manoj K. Bhasin, et. al., “Relaxation Response Induces Temporal Transcriptome Changes in Energy Metabolism, Insulin Secretion and Inflammatory Pathways,” PLoS ONE 8(5), 2013
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