Whether you want to perk up, calm down, feel sharper, or just get happier, there’s a mind-altering routine for you.
1. To Feel More Confident, Try Yoga
The science: A little down? Assume upward dog.
A 2010 study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine examined the anxiety levels and moods of people who practiced yoga for an hour three times a week.
Yoga practice is associated with increased levels of GABA, an amino acid and neurotransmitter that may help reduce anxiety, according to Chris Streeter, a neurologist, a psychiatrist, and the lead author of the study. Also, slow, deep yogic breathing increases oxygen flow, which leads to optimal functioning of all your organs—including your brain, according to Dr. Anita Herur, an assistant professor of physiology at S. Nijalingappa Medical College, in India.
Another 2010 study, published in the Al Ameen Journal of Medical Sciences, led by Herur, looked at the physical effects of yoga on new practitioners and linked the practice to improved overall mood. The researchers found that in the study’s subjects the parasympathetic nervous system—the part of the nervous system that promotes relaxation—kicked into high gear “around three months after starting yoga,” says Herur.
How to put it into practice: If you’re new to yoga, your first step should be to learn correct breathing, says Lynn Louise Wonders, a yoga teacher and the owner of the Yoga Room, in Marietta, Ga.
Wonders advises, “Breathe in through your nose to the count of five. Hold for two counts, then exhale through your nose to the count of five, emptying your lungs completely.” Repeat five times. Now you’re ready to merge the breathing with movement.
Aim to take one 60-minute class a week. But even 10 minutes done every day at home may improve your outlook. The key is consistency.
2. To Sleep Better, Try Pilates
The science: People who report sleep problems are sometimes just having a hard time relaxing, since good sleep is difficult to achieve when you’re stressed and can’t wind down. But there’s a promising fix: Recently published research from Appalachian State University, in Boone, N.C. found that practicing Pilates was associated with better snoozing.
For the uninitiated, Pilates, developed by fitness pioneer Joseph H. Pilates in the 1920s, is a system of core-strengthening moves done on a mat or an apparatus called a Reformer. Study participants who did Pilates on a mat twice weekly for 75 minutes or three times a week for 50 minutes, for 15 weeks, were less likely to experience troubled sleep. These sleep improvements may be linked to an increased bodily awareness, says Karen Caldwell, the lead researcher of the study. One theory holds that when you’re more in tune with yourself, you’re better able to let go of stress and feel relaxed.
How to put it into practice: Alycea Ungaro, the owner of the Real Pilates Studio, in New York City, suggests that you get started by reading Joseph Pilates’s book, Return to Life Through Contrology. She describes it as the method’s most comprehensive manual. When you’re ready to get moving, try taking mat classes at a gym. Classes usually last an hour. For noticeable results, try to go three times a week.
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3. To Increase Your Energy, Try Cycling
The science: When you spin your wheels, you’re not just spinning your wheels—even if your bike rides aren’t Tour de France length. Researchers at the University of Georgia in Athens (UGA) found that after a single 30-minute session of stationary cycling, subjects reported a boost in their energy levels. In addition, the authors of the study were able to record positive electrical changes in the subjects’ brains related to energy (the measurements were taken by an electroencephalogram). “The cycling seemed to activate brain neural circuits that make a person feel energized,” says Patrick O’Connor, a professor of kinesiology at UGA.
“We tend to think of physical activity as being tiring, but in fact physical activity adds energy to our lives,” says Kate F. Hays, a clinical and sport psychologist in Toronto.
How to put it into practice: Although a single session of cycling will put some pep in your step, for lasting results, try cycling “at a light to moderate pace on a stationary bike for 15 minutes three times a week,” says Rick Mayo, a cycling instructor and the owner of North Point Personal Training, in Roswell, Ga. This will provide the stimulus needed for a consistent increase in energy. And don’t limit your workouts to the gym. Research shows that any kind of exercise done outdoors may boost energy more than indoor activity does.
4. To Achieve Clarity, Try Weights
The science: Lifting dumbbells is obviously great for toning your triceps, but it does the same for your mental muscles. In a November 2010 study published in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, older adults who did simple, low-intensity weight-training exercises three to five times a week for one month performed significantly better on cognitive tests than did the control group, which did no weight training. Specifically, the weight-training group improved in executive function, which includes the ability to plan, regulate behavior, and multitask, says Cay Anderson-Hanley, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor of psychology at Union College, in Schenectady, N.Y.
A 2010 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that one-hour sessions of weight training, done once or twice a week for a year, increased participants’ ability to focus their attention and make the right choice on a challenging brain test, according to lead author Teresa Liu-Ambrose, an assistant professor in the department of physical therapy at the University of British Columbia. In this study, participants started with two sets of eight repetitions and increased the weight load once they could handle more than eight reps while maintaining proper form. While researchers are still examining why the mind-muscle connection exists, one area they’re exploring is growth factors, such as brain-derived neurotrophic growth factors. These growth factors help the brain generate new neurons, even later in life, and help increase the flexibility of existing ones.
How to put it into practice: Beginners can try three weekly sessions, each including three sets of the exercises used in Anderson-Hanley’s study (which can be found on the National Institutes of Health website).
“All you need is a chair and some three- to five-pound weights,” she says. The last set of reps should be a challenge. If it’s too easy, either increase the weight or try a body-sculpting class at a local gym or a DVD. Skip a day between workouts so your muscles have some time to rest.
5. To Reduce Stress, Try Tai Chi
The science: Recent studies have shown the stress-busting benefits of Tai Chi, a popular form of an ancient Chinese martial art that is essentially a combination of movements and positions that flow into one another. In fact, Tai Chi was linked to reduced stress in two separate studies last year—one in the British Journal of Sports Medicine and the other in the Journal of American College Health.
In Tai Chi, which is traditionally done in a standing position, you repeatedly shift your weight back and forth, engaging the muscles in both your upper and lower body, as well as employing rhythmic breathing. Because the shifts are slow and fluid, they relax your muscles and calm your mind while improving your balance, strength, and flexibility. This “meditation in motion,” as it is sometimes called, is said to stimulate the body’s flow of what the Chinese refer to as Chi (pronounced chee), or life force. Whether or not you believe the force is with you, psychologist Kate Hays theorizes that Tai Chi’s mellow pace and precise actions focus the mind and serve as a reminder to take things more slowly.
How to put it into practice: New to Tai Chi? Consider learning the basic series of movements at home with a DVD. Seek out more advanced study with a teacher. For maximum benefits, strive to practice for up to 20 minutes every morning.