My mornings start with a 15-minute meditation. While I swear by this method for starting my day on the right foot, I recognise not everyone is the same. Some of us don’t find peace when focussing on our breath. Some get bored, frustrated or just feel like it’s a total waste of time.
I’m not going to try convincing you to give meditation another shot. You know who you are much better than I do. Instead, I’m going to tell you about a few alternatives. These alternatives stimulate a similar state in your brain and body. None will require you to sit still or om. Give them a whirl to find an enjoyable way of bringing more calm and balance to your life.
Take a walk in natural spaces
Our built environment has both direct and indirect impacts on our mental wellbeing. Loud noises, light pollution, cramped spaces and the toxins and pollutants in our surroundings are just a few of the things that impact our health daily.
Although we aren’t wholly aware of the effect these things have on us, it all adds up and compounds. For some people, it can mean getting a bit run down. For others, it leads to acute mental and physical issues.
Although most of us live in a fast-paced built environment, the hardware we get around in — the human body — has evolved for wild spaces. Taking some to walk in natural spaces combats the battering our bodies and psyches take from built environments.
You don’t have to do anything special. Just walk in a park, woodland, or nature reserve. 10 minutes seems to be the most prescribed amount of time. 120 minutes a week is optimal, so a little over 15 minutes a day and you’re winning.
Spending time in these sorts of environments has been shown in many different studies to have multiple benefits for us.
Simply walking in a natural space reduces cortisol (a stress hormone) in our bodies. It also boosts endorphins, brain functions like memory, creativity and cognitive agility. Of course, our physical health wins too. Increase your pace a little and you’ll also increase the grey matter of your brain.
Get on your bike
It surprised me to learn it, but cycling is great for your brain and your body. It doesn’t seem to matter much, where you do it, or even if you use an electric-assisted bike! Cycling has been shown in various studies to improve mood, physical health, and a number of cognitive functions.
The sweet spot for improving your brain function and not depleting your energy for the rest of the day is 30–45 minutes. A bike ride of this length will increase the production of proteins used for new brain cells, along with your reasoning and planning abilities.
Along with the brain-boosting benefits that are akin to meditation, the psychological benefits also include reduced anxiety, depression and stress plus increased feelings of happiness and satisfaction with life.
These benefits are supported by the reduction of cortisol in your system and boosted endorphins and cannabinoids (yep, like the ones you get in marijuana and hemp, but these cannabinoids are made all by yourself). These ‘feel-good’ chemicals help boost your mood.
Cannabinoids are associated with anti-inflammatory functions in the body and are thought to help regulate our immune system too.
The increase in brain function from cycling may even help stave off cognitive declines like Alzheimer’s and similar degenerative diseases. Cycling to work could well be the perfect start to your day.
Dip your toe in the water
Just getting close to a body of water should be enough. No need to get wet. Improved social interactions, better brain health and stress relief are just a few of the advantages you can get from being near bodies of water.
Multiple studies over the past decade have looked at how our brain reacts to ponds, rivers, oceans and even swimming pools and fountains. The findings are pretty good news too.
The sound, feel and the sight of blue spaces of almost any kind is great for us.
Similar to green spaces, spending time near blue spaces engenders lowered cortisol levels, negative feelings and stress. It will also boost endorphins, cognitive performance and it has a psychologically restorative effect that is greater than woodland and other ‘green’ spaces without water.
What’s interesting is, that some urban areas with blue spaces in them— say a water fountain or pond — rate almost as high as green spaces in terms of supporting our wellbeing.
Although some studies have focussed on the benefits of physical exercise near water and how it boosts the growth of brain cells — similarly to exercise in green spaces — other studies show that just being near water spurs people to exercise more.
That said, you needn’t do too much to reap the rewards of being near water.
Sitting and gazing at it, floating on it or in it, and listening to the sounds of it are all good for our mental wellbeing.
Recordings are just as good as the real thing when taking a ‘dose’ of water as sound. No activity is required. Your brain activity will still slow, your cortisol levels will still drop and if you’re engaged with water for long enough — about 10 minutes or so — a mildly meditative state is achieved without any effort on your part.
Everyone benefits when we take an active interest in our physical and mental health. Meditation isn’t for everyone. Thankfully cycling, regular walks in natural spaces or simply getting the sound, feel, or view of water into your life each week can generate similar benefits. Each of these activities delivers some calm and improves brain health. It doesn’t have to take long, it’s not even arduous to do, but taking care of your mental wellbeing will improve your life dramatically.