With the dawning of a new year, many people resolve to focus more on their health. One of the best ways to improve your overall health is through meditation. Meditation has been described as the “art of being still.” For many, being still is a challenge. There always seems to be something – or someone – that demands our attention. And the world in which we live often doesn’t seem to value the simple act of doing nothing. We’re taught that to achieve takes a great deal of work and accumulating things often provides people with a sense of self-esteem and purpose.
But meditation, a practice with a long and rich history, is slowly evolving into a mainstream practice for those who are seeking to reduce stress, improve their job or athletic performance, or simply improve their overall health and well-being. Many companies, including Apple, Google, and Nike, have offered meditation in the workplace.
Meditation’s ability to improve people’s health has been researched extensively and the results are consistently favorable.
Ways Meditation Can Improve Your Health and Well-Being
It Reduces Stress
Meditation is known primarily as a form of stress reduction. The simple act of lowering stress can help ease the symptoms of all kinds of conditions and diseases, including high blood pressure, cancer, heart disease, and depression. Lowered stress also helps the mind. One study showed that people who lead stressful lives are 2-1/2 times more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment, a condition that is often a precursor to dementia.
It Reduces Pain
Meditation, in addition to being a powerful stress reducer, has also been shown to reduce pain. In a study conducted at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, researchers found that people who were meditating experienced less pain than control groups when subjected to a painful prod on the back with a thermal heat probe.
It Improves Brain Health
Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, conducted two studies to discover what, if any, effect meditation had on the brain. What she discovered is that meditation created physical changes in the brain; specifically, the hippocampus – responsible for learning and memory – grew larger.
It May Reduce Cognitive Impairment
A study at UCLA discovered that a three-month course of yoga and meditation helped minimize the cognitive issues that often precede Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia – in fact, it was more effective than memory enhancement exercises in improving visual-spatial memory skills and decreasing depression and anxiety. Another study from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston showed that a group of people aged 55-90 who meditated and practiced yoga showed less brain shrinkage, particularly in the hippocampus, than the control group. According to Alzheimers.net, meditation can also:
- Increase protective tissues in the brain
- Decrease feelings of isolation and loneliness
- Reduce stress, including lowering the body’s level of the hormone cortisol, which has been shown to increase the risk of developing dementia
Learning to Become Still
So how does one meditate and how can we incorporate meditation into our busy, hectic lives? The first act of meditation is simply to become still. This can be challenging, as we are taught to multitask and get things done. Slowing down may seem to go against everything we’ve been taught about how to get ahead in the world. One of the easiest ways to become still is to practice mindful breathing, one of the main components of mindful meditation. Become conscious of each inhale and exhale. Start to breathe in more deeply. Expand your belly on each inhale. Get to the point where the length of the inhale and exhale are approximately the same. As your breathing becomes balanced, your mind becomes balanced. By focusing on your breath, you’ll discover the mind shuts off, giving it – and your entire body – a chance to rejuvenate.