Exercise can be just as effective as mindfulness at reducing people’s stress and anxiety, a Cambridge University study has found.
The form of meditation, which involves sitting silently to focus on thoughts, sounds and sensations, has become increasingly popular in recent years.
Often touted as a universal tool for improving mental health by reducing stress and depression, many people have turned to mindfulness to cope with anxieties resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.
But Cambridge University experts say it shouldn’t be assumed that meditating will always have a positive impact, adding some people will reap more benefits from physical exercises.
Across a series of randomised control trials (RTCs) carried out around the world, Dr Julieta Galante found that mindfulness performed no better or worse than other therapies, including exercise, in alleviating mental health problems.
Researchers reviewed 136 RCTs, which looked at whether mindfulness in a community setting – meaning outside of a clinical environment – promotes mental health.
These trials included over 11,000 participants aged 18 to over 73 years from 29 countries of whom more than three-quarters (77 per cent) were women.
In most cases mindfulness did indeed reduce anxiety, stress and depression compared with doing nothing.
But in more than one in 20 trial settings, practicing mindfulness did not work, and that on average “when you compare mindfulness against something else which you can do for your mental health, there is no evidence of it being better or worse”.
Dr Julieta Galante told the Telegraph: “The main message here is, don’t assume mindfulness will work, don’t just assume it will work for everyone, everywhere in every setting.
“We found no evidence that mindfulness is intrinsically better than other things. We have much, much more evidence for the mental and physical benefits of physical exercise.
“It may be better for some people to choose to do physical exercise, if they had to choose.”
However, preliminary findings do suggest that mindfulness courses may work at its best for people in high stress occupations such as healthcare, Dr Galante said.