Focusing on the present moment—rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future—can improve your well-being in so many ways.
Mindfulness has been a health and wellness buzzword for years. Maybe you’ve already heard that meditation and mindfulness practices like tai chi and yoga can make you feel more relaxed and centered. But improving your self-awareness can boost your health in so many other ways.
"Virtually all the things that cause suffering are things that once benefited humans when our ancestors were living on the African savanna," says Ronald D. Siegel, Psy.D., and assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. Siegel says that the human brain was wired by evolution to live long enough to pass on genes - not to be happy.
"If we want to experience well-being, we have to retrain our brains," he says. Mindfulness practices offer exactly that kind of training.
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Siegel defines it simply: Mindfulness is paying attention, noticing what's here and now, and accepting it. And you don't have to meditate or do yoga poses to do it: You can bring mindfulness to everyday activities like washing the dishes or taking a walk. But for many people, mindfulness refers to a formal practice.
There are many examples of these practices, but one of the best known is mindfulness meditation. This is done by placing your full attention on the sensations of breathing for a set amount of time. Mantra meditation is when you repeat a word or phrase to promote focus and attention.
“Any activity that lets us step out of the usual thought stream and pay attention to moment-to-moment sensations is mindfulness,” says Siegel.
In addition to stress reduction, better sleep, and an increased sense of calm, regular mindfulness practice also has the following lesser-known health benefits.
1. Mindfulness Helps Reduce Anxiety and Depression
Mindfulness doesn’t just help with these common mental-health issues, it may be as useful as medicine. Mindfulness practices were equally effective in reducing depression and anxiety as talk therapy and medication, according to studies published in 2018 and 2023 in Clinical Psychology Review.
Mindfulness helps ease depression and anxiety by training a person to focus their attention on the present moment. "Most of our fears are associated with thoughts about the future," says Siegel.
But meditation also changes the parts of the brain associated with depression. The medial prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that specializes in worrying and ruminating, is overactive in people who are depressed. The amygdala, which is the brain's fear center, also ramps up when a person is experiencing depression and anxiety. Meditation helps break the connection between these brain regions.
2. Mindfulness May Help Reduce Back Pain
There is some evidence that shows that mindfulness may be able to assist your aching back, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. More research is needed, but Siegel has seen mindfulness ease pain in his practice.
"It changes our relationship to pain," he says. "Normally we have an immediate aversion response-let me take medicine or stop moving." Mindfulness helps people accept the pain and move on with their lives. "It can keep older adults exercising in spite of the aches and pains and make them less likely to medicate with prescription pain killers or alcohol," says Siegel.
3. Mindfulness Helps You Breathe Easier
Many styles of mindfulness involve practicing specific breathing patterns, and this type of practice may benefit your lungs. Yoga training that includes breathing exercises can even improve lung function in people with COPD, according to a study published in the Journal of Thoracic Disease.
Recommended reading: Take the 6-Day Mindfulness Challenge
4. Mindfulness Can Help Treat Addiction
It’s no secret that our country is struggling with this problem, even among seniors. Overdose deaths among older adults tripled between 2002 and 2021, according to research published in JAMA Psychiatry. And the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that alcohol use among older adults is on the rise too.
"It's common for people to self-medicate with alcohol," says Siegel. Emerging research suggests that mindfulness practices can help people overcome a substance-use disorder by raising their awareness of the thoughts and experiences that trigger cravings.
5. Mindfulness Can Ease Pain From Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome is a condition that causes cramping, abdominal pain, bloaating, gas, diarrhea, and constipation. It affects about 10% to 20% of older adults, and frequent stomach pain and unpredictable bathroom visits can torpedo your quality of life.
A 2022 analysis published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine found that people with IBS who practiced mindfulness experienced less pain — and anxiety — than IBS patients who did not.
6. Mindfulness May Help Prevent Cognitive Decline
A top concern among seniors is keeping their brains sharp. According to a 2021 study published in Frontiers Aging Neuroscience, mindfulness training can maintain or improve cognitive function in healthy older adults. Researchers believe this is because it may strengthen connections between different regions of the brain, but more research is needed in this area.
Recommended reading: 6 Signs of Mild Cognitive Impairment You Should Know
How to Get Started With Mindfulness
If you're just beginning a mindfulness practice, Siegel suggests setting aside 20 minutes a day for it. Then you can devote more time once you get the hang of it. "It's enough to get a flavor of it, but when you do it for 45 minutes, you really notice the power," says Siegel.
A daily meditation practice is ideal, he says, but even a few days a week will make a difference. If you're inspired to give mindfulness a try, here are Seigel's top tips on where to begin.
Attend a class. SilverSneakers members can take the 15-minute Mindfulness and Meditation (Express) classes offered online through SilverSneakers LIVE. These short sessions are led by specially trained SilverSneakers instructors.
Hospitals nationwide offer a formal eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program based on the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. "When you learn this way, you get social support that can be very helpful," says Siegel.
Recommended FREE SilverSneakers On-Demand Class: Stress Management: Mindfulness Practices for Seniors
Listen to a guided meditation. Free guided meditations are available online, for those who want to practice from home. You can listen to meditation instructions, breath meditations, meditations for pain, and many others at Siegel’s website.
Try an app. Your phone may also be able to give you an assist. In recent years, mindfulness apps have made a daily meditation practice easier for everyone. Popular options include Calm and Headspace.
See our sources:
Meditation and mindfulness basics: National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health
Study comparing effectiveness of mindfulness-based therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy for depression: Clinical Psychology Review
Study examining mindfulness-based therapies as mental health treatment: Clinical Psychology Review
How meditation changes parts of the brain associated with depression: Harvard Health
Mindfulness and back pain: National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health
Benefits of yoga with breathing exercises for COPD: Journal of Thoracic Disease
Data on overdose deaths: JAMA Psychiatry
Data on alcohol use: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
Research on effectiveness of mindfulness as a treatment for addiction: Addiction Science & Clinical Practice
Mindfulness and IBS: Journal of Clinical Medicine
Mindfulness and cognitive decline: Frontiers Aging Neuroscience
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