Recently, I reviewed a study showing that people who practice meditation reported benefits, but also failed to discuss it with their healthcare providers. This is a big disconnect. Meditation, being in the moment, quiet time, deep breathing, and keeping stress managed are all skills that are in a category that is often the missing ingredient to overall health.
Just spend more time focusing on your mind. Give yourself extra time to be quiet. Take a class on meditation or mindfulness. All easy things to say, but quite difficult to do in the real world. Let’s take a look at some recent studies on the elements of these things. This will highlight just how many ways the same thing can be achieved. Just like lifting weights, there is a lot of “same but different.” Once we see the different options, we’ll discuss how to actually implement them, while still maintaining your schedule of work, family, and Game of Thrones.
It Won’t Work If You Don’t Do It
Our first study1 looked at an internet-based mindfulness program and a writing program. The mindfulness group had online modules that consisted of reading, exercises to do, and audio to listen to. The program included things like breathing exercises, walking and sitting meditation, and certain yoga poses. The group was encouraged to practice their exercises or focus 30-45 minutes a day, most days.
The writing group was asked to write for about 20 minutes a week. They were specifically tasked with writing about stressor related emotions, which has been used in the past. However, they also included writing projects that were positive prompts, such as “what has become better since…”.
Modest improvements, if any if any at all, were reported by these groups. Yet the thing that struck me was only 39% of the participants completed the mindfulness modules, and 70% completed the writing project. So most people dropped out of an online module requiring almost daily effort, and almost 30% dropped out of a weekly writing project. Sounds like a small return for a relatively big time commitment.
If a benefit exists, maybe it’s not from an online program (at least as it was designed), and maybe something less intensive and overwhelming is required for a beginner.
Experience and Effectiveness
Another recent study2 looked at long-term practitioners of meditation. It showed that intense meditation can actually change brain activity during sleep. They used two styles of meditation. One was Vipassana style, which focuses on being less reactive to emotional responses. The other group did Metta meditation, focusing more on love and peace for others.
Increased low frequency activity was noted during a specific sleep cycle in both meditation groups compared to controls. The functional significance of this isn’t as important as the fact that two types of meditation actually changed brain activity. Like anything else, different styles can produce similar results if you actually do it.
This study was particularly well done because it didn’t just use college students with no experience (no disrespect). It used people who have been practicing meditation for at least 3 years, with an average of over 15 years of meditation training. The authors noted that the brain activity changes went up relative to experience. Those who were better at meditation got more changes from each meditation session. While this could be discouraging, I look at it as proof that it works, and even a small amount of consistency can go a long way.
Reducing Pain in the Mind
Yet another recent study3 looked at mindfulness training and pain. 34 subjects were used, half who had moderate to severe pain. The experimental group went through a 6-week mindfulness program including sitting and walking meditation, Hatha yoga, and other informal tips and exercises.
After the 6-week program, the experimental group had a significant decrease in reported pain compared to the control group. The authors noted that a change in perception helps us deal with pain in a different manner. Instead of reacting, it becomes more of an observation that can be dealt with. It makes sense that pain can control our emotions and, just as in physical therapy, we need some mental therapy as well. The authors even used brain scans to show an increased area of activity of the brain connected to emotional reactivity and how it can be redirected.
Make Mindfulness and Meditation Priorities
The first study we reviewed here highlighted an important fact. Nothing can work if you don’t do it or believe in it. Start small, track results, and either continue or find something a little different. The second study involving experienced meditators used 8 hour sessions. Not many of us can do that, but shorter sessions consistently undertaken could go a long way.
In strength training, we discuss tension. In a pushup, your body requires a certain amount of tension to keep proper posture. This level of tension is much less than say, a max bench press. The way stress and commitments can rule our lives sometimes is the equivalent of our mental tension being at a maximum bench press.
I’m not an expert in meditation. I’m simply a nutrition and fitness professional who sees on a daily basis what life can do to sabotage our wellbeing. Having an awareness of the different disciplines of mindfulness and meditation will hopefully encourage you to explore different options.
Here are a few ways that I’ve implemented mindfulness and “stress reduction” strategies for myself:
- I used to bring my phone on walks with my dogs. Instead of enjoying the moment outdoors, I was checking email. Once I stopped this, I enjoyed it much more and it helped bring me down from the day. I even noticed we have stars in the sky. It doesn’t have to be a walk with a dog, but having something you do each day to disconnect you for a bit can be a great routine.
- I started taking baths with Epsom salt to help muscle soreness. Like the dog walks, I would have my phone around. I ditched it, and just enjoyed the quiet. My wife is doing the same thing after a long day. She was having upper digestive issues, and just a simple bath brought her stress levels down enough to fix it.
- Quiet time in my home gym in “corpse” pose, lying on the ground. Just lying on my back for 10 minutes after foam rolling or a few stretches. Focusing on breathing and just the pure quietness. It’s amazing how refreshing it can be, on par with a short nap.
Meditation, mindfulness training, and stress reduction all are related, but I understand they are totally separate and expansive disciplines with much to offer. The recent research shows the benefit of doing something to train your brain and keep it healthy. Without a strong mental game and managed stress, a training program or diet cannot be as powerful as it should be.
When looking at new year’s resolutions, I understand the diet and exercise folks. But what are you going to do this year on the mental health side of things? As Ben Stiller’s character in Dodge Ball says as he’s reading the dictionary upside down, “I like to break a mental sweat, too”.
More on the relationship of mental and physical states:
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1. Kvillemo, Pia, Yvonne Brandberg, and Richard Bränström. “Feasibility and Outcomes of an Internet-Based Mindfulness Training Program: A Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial.” JMIR Mental Health 3, no. 3 (2016). Accessed November 12, 2016. doi:10.2196/mental.5457.
2. Dentico, Daniela, Fabio Ferrarelli, Brady A. Riedner, Richard Smith, Corinna Zennig, Antoine Lutz, Giulio Tononi, and Richard J. Davidson. “Short Meditation Trainings Enhance Non-REM Sleep Low-Frequency Oscillations.” Plos One 11, no. 2 (2016). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0148961.
3. Su, I-Wen, Fang-Wei Wu, Keng-Chen Liang, Kai-Yuan Cheng, Sung-Tsang Hsieh, Wei-Zen Sun, and Tai-Li Chou. “Pain Perception Can Be Modulated by Mindfulness Training: A Resting-State FMRI Study.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 10 (2016). Accessed November 17, 2016. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2016.00570.