Meditate Your Way to Better Health
Meditation is a practice that has been around for thousands of years. While its roots are in religious traditions, it has evolved to become a mainstream practice for anyone looking to reduce stress, improve their job or athletic performance, or simply improve their overall well-being. Many companies, including Aetna, Apple, Google and Nike, incorporate meditation practices in the workplace. Meditation’s reputation for improving people’s health has attracted the attention of the scientific community. Research on the benefits of meditation is relatively new, but shows some promising results.
Meditation is known primarily as a form of stress reduction. Numerous studies have shown its ability to lower stress, which is often the foundation of many diseases. One study of African Americans with heart disease showed that those who practiced meditation regularly were 48 percent less likely to have a heart attack or stroke than those who did not. A study done at the Northeastern University College of Science showed that meditation made people more compassionate towards their fellow human beings.
But perhaps even more interesting are the studies about meditation’s effect on the mind. 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. She discusses her findings in detail in this TED talk.
Meditation and Alzheimer’s
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 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 one 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 focus on your breathing. 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.