The Science-Based Benefits of Meditation (and How to Get Started)
It seems like nearly everybody is into meditation these days. There are apps, YouTube videos, and experts everywhere. Meditation is no longer just for yoga class and members of the new age movement. Everybody from Katy Perry, to Clint Eastwood, to Oprah Winfrey, to Steve Jobs has mentioned meditation as a tool in their success.
So, what is meditation good for? And why should you consider it when picking the tools to help you reach your goals? What are the science-based benefits of meditation?
While meditation and mindfulness practices have been around for thousands of years, we’d like to look at some of the modern science and research to help you decide if it’s for you. Get the scoop on the benefits of meditation and where they come from.
What Is Meditation Good For?
As high performers—both in and out of the gym—many of us deal with pain and injury, the need for proper sleep and recovery, and too much stress. We’re also likely interested in decreasing inflammation in our bodies and avoiding disease. With all that in mind, consider the following:
A 2014 meta-analysis published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that mindfulness meditation programs improved anxiety, depression, and pain.
A 2014 study published in Sleep determined meditation to be a viable treatment for chronic insomnia.
A 2011 study on IBS sufferers found that meditation “[had] a substantial therapeutic effect on bowel symptom severity, improves health-related quality of life, and reduces distress.”
In a 2010 study, not only did participants report an increased sense of well-being due to meditation, but their bloodwork also showed a decreased stress load.
A 2016 study published in JAMA found that a regular practice of mindfulness-based stress reduction resulted in “greater improvement in back pain and functional limitations” for people suffering from chronic low-back pain. This backs up a 2013 meta-study that concluded meditation could decrease pain intensity for chronic sufferers.
A 2013 meta-study concluded that meditation-based therapies for smoking cessation appeared to be useful, though they felt more research should be done.
A 2012 meta-study reported that meditative therapies were effective for reducing anxiety symptoms.
Currently, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (a U.S. government agency) is also supporting studies investigating the application of meditation for fibromyalgia, stress reduction for multiple sclerosis sufferers, and reduction of post-traumatic stress disorder, headaches, and blood pressure. It is also being further investigated for its potential benefits to the immune system.
As you can see, there are clear physical benefits of meditation and many more we likely aren’t aware of yet. The application for meditation is large, continues to expand, and is relevant to anyone pursuing health and performance.
How to Get Started with Meditation
Ready to practice mindfulness to improve your physical health or try meditation for stress? Ironically, getting started with meditation can itself be stressful. How do you know what to do? How long do you do it for? What if you get it “wrong?”
Thankfully, it’s actually very easy to get started with meditation. There’s literally no way to do it wrong! All you have to do to start is create an awareness of your breathing:
Find a quiet place. Choose somewhere you can remain undisturbed for at least 10 minutes.
Sit in a comfortable position. You can sit in a chair or on the floor, but you don’t need to worry about “posing” in a specific way.
Breathe in and out. Focus on the sensation, sound, feeling, temperature, frequency, depth, or whatever else you want. Make this time simply about breathing.
Keep an open mind. The thing that most frequently stops beginners is self-judgment—thinking that if you get distracted, you are somehow meditating “wrong.” But, in truth, the act of getting distracted and reorienting yourself to your breath is meditation. You aren’t doing it wrong—you’re simply doing it.
There are, of course, many more formal ways of meditating—from Zazen, to Kundalini, to Transcendental. We recommend exploring a variety of styles and forms to find what brings you the most benefit. Your experience will also depend on why you’re meditating, despite achieving the same level of serenity. For example, someone may use meditation to cope with chronic physical pain, while another person uses meditation for anxiety.
Apps like Headspace and guided meditation videos on YouTube can be useful tools to initiate your exploration, no matter why you’re meditating. But, if that all feels overwhelming, remember to just breathe.
Is Meditation a Tool for You?
Meditation bridges the gap between our mental and physical selves. Therefore, it can be a valuable tool in everything from managing daily stress to performing under pressure on the competitive stage. Regularly spending time meditating can also help you determine what matters to you most, be kinder to yourself, and develop compassion for others.
Sounds like some big claims, right? Well, meditation hasn’t been around for thousands of years for no reason.