Getting zen aids more than just your mind—it can help you workout harder, stay healthier, and enjoy life more
Want to squash stress, sleep sounder, ditch excess weight, eat healthier, and workout harder, all in one fell swoop? Meditation may be that single cure-all we’re looking for to be happier and healthier immediately. “Many people live much of their life on auto-pilot, but meditation—particularly mindfulness meditation—helps people focus on living life in the present moment,” explains Mary Jo Kreitzer, Ph.D., RN, founder and director of the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota.
Still hesitant to try it? Once you read these 17 benefits of mindfulness and meditation, you’ll be ready to drown out the world and improve your life.
Athlete’s really are on another level—but meditating might help get your mind on their level. People who practice Transcendental Meditation have similar brain functioning to elite athletes, according to a study in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports. Sitting in silence every day doesn’t mean you’ll suddenly be ready to win a marathon, but it can help you develop the mental grit and traits among top athletes. Plus it can help you push your body through the pain (more on that later). Find out more about How Meditation Can Make You a Better Athlete.
Mindfulness is not only associated with feeling less stressed, but it actually helps to lower your cortisol levels (the stress hormone), according to research from the Shamatha Project at the University of California, Davis. Researchers measured participants’ mindfulness before and after an intensive, three-month meditation retreat and found that those who returned with higher levels of focusing on the present also had lower cortisol levels. Don’t worry, the stress relief comes quicker than three months: People who received just three consecutive days of mindfulness training (25-minute sessions where they were taught to focus on breath and the present moment) felt more calm when faced with a stressful task in a study published in Psychoneuroendocrinology.
We all have blind spots when it comes to our own emotions, behaviors, and thoughts, but mindfulness can actually help is conquer this ignorance. A paper in Perspectives on Psychological Science found that because mindfulness involved paying attention to your current experience and doing so in a non-judgmental way it helps is overcome the biggest roadblock in self-awareness: Not knowing our own shortcomings.
Meditation may be better than any luxury headphone. In a study in the journal Psychology of Music, students listened to a 15-minute mindful meditation instructional tape followed by an excerpt of Giacomo Puccini’s opera "La Boheme." 64 percent of those who engaged in mindfulness felt that the technique allowed them to spend longer in the state of flow—what researchers describe as the listeners’ effortless engagement, aka how “in the zone” you are. (Find out what's going on with Your Brain On: Music.)
Dealing with diagnoses is unimaginably rough, but meditation can help: When women with breast cancer practiced mindfulness as well as art therapy, their stress and anxiety-related brain activity changed, in a study in Stress and Health. Mindfulness training also helped patients with rheumatoid arthritis combat the stress and fatigue associated with the disease, in an article published in the journal Annals of Rheumatic Disease.
The biggest roadblocks in weight maintenance is by far our own selves—that cake you just can’t resist, the pizza that is calling your name after a stressful day. But mindfulness can actually help you make healthier decisions. “When we become mindful, we are more conscious of food choices and may even taste and appreciate the food more,” says Kreitzer. In fact, a study from UC San Francisco found that obese women who were trained to experience the moment-by-moment sensory experience of eating, as well as who meditated 30 minutes a day, were more likely to lose weight. (Want more simple tricks? Experts Reveal: 15 Small Diet Changes for Weight Loss.)
A new study in Cancer found that in some breast cancer survivors who regularly practice stress-reducing techniques, including mindful meditation and yoga, their cells have been physically changed despite no longer receiving treatment. Women who had survived breast cancer at least two years prior but who were still emotionally distressed met for 90 minutes each week to discuss their feelings and found that after three months, they had healthier telomeres—the protective casing at the end of a DNA strand—than breast cancer survivors who just took one workshop on stress reduction techniques. (Crazy! Find out how else we're Making Strides Against Breast Cancer.)
Smokers who meditated for half an hour every day for 10 days were 60 percent less likely to reach for a cigarette than those who were simply taught to relax, reports research out of Texas and Oregon. Interestingly, the smokers didn’t go into the study to kick their habit and were actually unaware of how much they had cut back—they reported their usual count, but breath measures showed they actually smoked fewer cigarettes than before. Ongoing research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggests recovering alcoholics may benefit from meditation as well, since it can help them cope with the problems that led to their drinking in the first place. (What other habits should you kick? Follow these 10 Simple Rules for a Healthy Life.)
Meditation makes you feel so focused and calm because it actually helps your brain have better control over processing pain and emotions, according to a study in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. Studies show that seasoned meditators can tolerate quite a bit of pain, but even newbies can benefit: After four 20-minute sessions, participants who had a 120 degree piece of metal touch their calf reported it 40 percent less painful and 57 percent less uncomfortable than before their training. Those kind of numbers could get you pretty far when you’re at mile 25 of a marathon or only halfway through your burpee set.
When researchers from Johns Hopkins University combed through nearly 19,000 meditation studies, they found that some of the best evidence was in favor of mindfulness meditation easing psychological stresses like anxiety and depression. Previously, researchers found that meditation affects the activity in two particular parts of the brain, the anterior cingulate cortex—which controls thinking and emotions—and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex—which controls worrying. What’s more, participants saw an almost 40 percent decrease in their anxiety levels after just four 20-minute classes in the study, published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. (Did you know depression can manifest as physical pain? It's one of these 5 Health Issues That Hit Women Differently.)
Meditation doesn’t just make you feel good—it actually makes you a better person. After eight weeks of meditation training, researchers put participants in a full room of actors with only one seat left. After the participant sat down, an actor appearing to be in great physical pain would enter on crutches while everyone ignored him. Among the non-meditating participants, only about 15 percent of people moved to help him. Of the people who had meditated, though, half made motions to help the injured man out. Their results, published in Psychological Science, seemed to support what Buddhist have long believed—that meditation helps you become more compassionate and experience love for all sentient beings. (Plus compassion can keep you fit! Check out these other 22 Ways to Stay Motivated to Lose Weight.)
Daily meditation helped stave off feelings of loneliness in a study from University of California, Los Angeles and Carnegie Mellon University. What’s more, the blood tests revealed that meditating helped lower participants’ inflammation levels, meaning they were at lower risk for developing serious illnesses. Researchers attribute both results to meditation’s effect on stress, since stress enhances loneliness and increases inflammation.
Meditating can benefit your bank account as well by saving you money on health care costs: A study from the Center for Health Systems Analysis found that those who practice meditation spent 11 percent less on health care after one year, and 28 percent less after having practiced for five years. (Help your wallet even more: How to Save Money on Your Gym Membership.)
People who meditate miss fewer days of work from acute respiratory infections, and experience both a shortened duration and severity of symptoms, according to a study in the Annals of Family Medicine. In fact, meditators are 40 to 50 percent less likely to get sick than their non-zen counterparts. (If you didn't start meditating in time, you might need these 10 Home Remedies for Cold and Flu.)
Practicing Transcendental Meditation (a specific form of mantra meditation) significantly reduces your risk for a heart attack or stroke, according to a study in Circulation. It also lowers your blood pressure, which, combined with meditation’s effect on stress, both keep your heart healthy. (Intrigued? Try these 10 Mantras Mindfulness Experts Live By.)
Mindfulness training was more effective at helping people sleep than more traditional methods, like limiting light exposure at night and avoiding alcohol at night, in a new study in JAMA Internal Medicine. In fact, it was as effective as sleep medication has been shown to be, and also helped improve fatigue during the daytime.
Meditation can improve pretty much every part of your work performance: After an eight-week meditation course, people were more energized, less negative about mundane tasks, better able to multitask and better able to focus on a single task for longer, reports a study from the University of Washington. Plus, meditating helps you deal with stress better, which all employees could benefit from. (Try these 9 "Time Wasters" That Are Actually Productive.)