The Benefits of Meditation and Mindful Movement, According to Researchers
Health & Wellness
Learn the advantages of mindfulness and meditation, along with easy ways to get started.
Whether you carve out a few minutes each day to quietly sit in meditation or you do a mindful movement practice such as yoga or Tai Chi, cultivating deeper awareness of your physical and mental state can offer a breadth of benefits for body and mind. And science backs it up. Here's a look at what research has found, along with some expert tips to get started.
Reduced Stress Levels — And All That Comes With It
There's increasing evidence that meditation or a mindful movement practice can lead to improvements in physiological markers associated with stress, such as reduced blood pressure and resting heart rate, said Ciarán Friel, Ed.D., assistant investigator at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research, whose work involves exercise physiology and behavioral science.
"One notable finding is that meditation has been linked to better regulation of cortisol, the hormone most associated with your fight-or-flight stress response," he said.
That's a big deal. Cortisol affects almost every organ and tissue in your body, according to Cleveland Clinic. When it's properly regulated, the hormone optimizes metabolic function, reduces inflammation, and steadies blood sugar levels.
When cortisol is out of whack and stays elevated throughout the day — rather than just in the morning, its natural surge time — it can lead to increased belly fat, insomnia, muscle weakness, and immune system dysfunction. Mindfulness meditation can bring those levels back to where they should be. For example, a 2013 study on medical students found that just four days of meditation significantly lowered cortisol levels.
Another 2021 study, looking at people with high stress levels, reported that not only did meditation bring down cortisol, but that the effects didn't seem to fade over time.
Better Athletic Performance
Having the right mindset for sports and fitness is essential, and mindfulness could be a way to build that, according to Amishi Jha, Ph.D., and professor of contemplative neuroscience at the University of Miami.
To determine its efficacy, she and fellow researchers recruited 100 college football players and had them do four weeks of either relaxation training or mindfulness training. The results, which were published in a 2017 issue of the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, found that both methods help reduce anxiety, but that meditation offered better outcomes in terms of focus, engagement, and sustained attention during football practice.
"These results are in line with other research showing benefits that can transfer to athletic performance," Jha said. "That includes emotional well-being and better cognitive functioning, such as reducing the prevalence of distracting thoughts."
It may help endurance as well, according to a 2020 study that looked at university-level athletes. In that research, a five-week mindfulness training program resulted in less fatigue during endurance events, as well as improved breathing and posture.
Sharper Mental Function
Better concentration while exercising is a boon to athletic performance, but it also helps with the other tasks of daily life. Meditation has been shown to provide cognitive benefits, and mindful movement can have the same effect as sitting meditation for many people.
For example, a research review in a 2015 issue of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience noted that "skillful movement" like what's seen with mindful training, such as yoga and Tai Chi, can boost attention, focus, learning and organization.
Those researchers suggest that the way meditation focuses on sensation in the body — such as feeling your chest and belly rise and fall with your breath — can sharpen the mind-body connection in a way that reduces wandering thoughts and distraction.
How to Start A Mindfulness Practice
Developing a meditative mind takes time, and in some ways, it's like learning a new language. You'll need awareness, the ability to accept feeling awkward and uncomfortable, and some structure to become fluent. Here are some tips on kicking off the endeavor:
1.It may not feel relaxing at first.
A research review looking at 83 studies on meditation found that about 65 percent of them reported at least some "meditation adverse events" such as anxiety and gastrointestinal upset. That's because sitting with your thoughts can bring up some difficult emotions, said Melinda Nasti, holistic therapist and director of spiritual wellness at Northwell Health in New York.
Knowing what might happen is helpful, along with techniques such as gently pivoting toward more objectivity — observing your thoughts instead of sinking into them — and counting your breaths. Coming back to awareness about your physical sensations may help break that overthinking cycle.
2.Try using meditation apps.
There are several apps that offer guided meditation, breathing exercises, mindful movement sequences, and evening wind-down visualizations, Friel said. An app such as Headspace, for example, has all of these as well as new selections daily and "soundscapes" you can use as background for your meditation.
"What's great about these apps is that they're geared toward helping you get started, and you can adapt them to your needs," Friel said. "Just like any other form of exercise, some days will be easier than others, and although your meditation skills will improve over time, having a resource like an app can give you a useful framework for your practice."
3.Think moments, not sessions.
With practice, you can extend meditation and mindful movement sessions, but if you're just getting started, it's better to incorporate mindful moments into your everyday activity, Nasti suggested.
"What color is the sky today?" she suggested asking. "Do the trees have buds? Just being intentionally present and noticing your surroundings 'counts' as mindfulness, and if you're walking, that can be a form of mindful movement."
4.Most of all, be patient.
Most likely, you'll begin to see the benefits of meditation sooner than you might think, but keep in mind that they may be subtle at first, Nasti said.
For example, you may be a bit less reactive to stressful situations, or you may fall asleep a few minutes sooner than you would otherwise, or you may find yourself having more "living in the present" moments during the day. As you continue to practice mindful movement meditation or regular meditation sessions, these benefits may become more pronounced.
"Have patience with yourself, because this is a practice that will grow over time," Nasti said. "Put small changes and mindful moments into every day, and over time, it will be much easier to sit and meditate for longer sessions. Once you've done that, you'll see the positive effects on your body, mind and spirit."
Words by Elizabeth Millard