When you need to reset and find some calm, a few minutes of mindfulness meditation can do the trick — and getting started is easier than you might think.
The holidays have a way of throwing even the most dedicated health enthusiast off their game. Not this year! All month long, follow along as SilverSneakers LIVE trainer Shannon Thigpen unwraps our best tips for staying healthy, happy, and, yes, even calm during this busy time of year. Check in here and on our Facebook page for new activities to try. Here’s to your healthiest, happiest holiday season ever!
Here’s a secret SilverSneakers Master Trainer Sharlyn Green is happy to spill: “You can find peace anytime, anywhere.”
No, you don’t need to check into a spa, book a flight to a faraway island, or even hide out in a dark room.
“You can create a calm environment for yourself wherever you are with mindfulness meditation,” Green says. She’s a certified yoga teacher who leads Mindfulness & Meditation (Express) classes on SilverSneakers LIVE.
“Even a short burst of mindfulness meditation in the middle of a busy day can have a huge effect on your well-being,” she adds.
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What Is Mindfulness Meditation
You’ve heard of mindfulness and of meditation. But chances are the idea of “mindfulness meditation” as a duo may be new to you.
This quick explainer may help:
Mindfulness is a practice, or a mindset, aiming to focus attention on the present. “It’s paying attention to our present moment experiences with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be with that experience,” says Diana Winston, head of mindfulness education at the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center and author of the Little Book of Being, who’s taught thousands of students, including many seniors.
Meditation is a technique that can help you practice mindfulness. Meditation comes in a few different forms. The one that often comes to mind is known as concentrative meditation. It’s where you tune out your surroundings and focus on one thing — your breath or a specific phrase or word — to reach a calm place and a higher state of being.
Mindfulness meditation is a technique that can help you with your mindfulness practice. It draws on simple breathing and thought “exercises” to keep you grounded in the present and help you feel less stressed and more open and aware.
“If you’re anything like most people, you probably spend more time than you should playing back past events in your mind or worrying about the future,” Green says. “Mindfulness meditation is a wonderful way to bring yourself back into the now. It’s a skill that can help you cope with stress.
“The best thing about mindfulness meditation,” Green adds, “is that it’s simple and it doesn’t take a lot of time to get the hang of.” That’s why she recommends it for anyone who is just dipping their toes into a mindful practice — and it’s also the type she teaches for SilverSneakers LIVE.
What Are the Health Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation
“There are so many benefits to mindfulness that it’s almost hard to narrow it down,” Green says.
But here are the highlights. Mindfulness meditation isn’t a medical treatment, but it has been shown to help:
- Lower blood pressure
- Boost the immune system
- Ease and manage chronic pain symptoms associated with arthritis, back pain, and fibromyalgia
- Manage symptoms of depression and anxiety
Researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that just two weeks of meditation training helped individuals stay focused and improve their working memory, while also reducing the occurrence of distracting thoughts.
Meditation may help you sleep better, too. A UCLA study found that older adults with insomnia who took a six-week mindfulness course reported significant improvement in their quality of sleep.
And it didn’t take as long as you might think. Their homework started with five minutes of mindfulness practice each day and progressed to 20 minutes daily by week six.
Research published in the journal Nature even suggests that mindfulness meditation may foster a spirit of cooperation and altruism.
How does meditation provide all these benefits? It all starts with how you handle stress.
What Happens in Your Body When You Meditate
Meditation helps you respond to stress differently, says Emily Lindsay, Ph.D., a University of Pittsburgh psychology expert who’s been researching mindfulness meditation for a decade. It interrupts your body’s “stress response.” The stress response is a cascade of physiological changes that includes heart pounding, quicker breathing, and increased sweating when your body is faced with a challenge.
“Stress is a brain-centered phenomenon that can be triggered by thoughts, but its effects happen physically in your body,” Green says.
Over time, repeated activation of this stress response — also known as chronic stress — could lead to high blood pressure and inflammation, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. That can lay the groundwork for cardiovascular problems, reports Harvard Health.
“Mindfulness offers just the right tools to combat these physical signs,” Green says.
In people who meditate regularly, stress tends to evoke less of a reaction in the body, Lindsay’s research has found. In one study, participants who practiced 20 minutes of mindfulness daily for two weeks saw lower blood pressure and cortisol levels in response to stress compared with a control group that learned common coping techniques instead.
(Important caveat: Only those who were taught to approach mindfulness with the right attitude — that is, an attitude of acceptance — saw this benefit, Lindsay notes. More on that in Tip #6, below.)
Another study coauthored by Lindsay suggests that meditation may combat “glucocorticoid resistance” in older adults who self-reported feelings of loneliness. That’s when the immune cells become less sensitive to cortisol’s anti-inflammatory effects in response to chronic stress.
When Do the Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation Kick In
We don’t have the data to say, Winston says.
“We’ve seen benefits with small increments,” Winston says, but we also know that more is better.
“We like to start people off with five minutes,” she adds. “The students who are practicing even five minutes a day are finding benefits.”
As with any new skillset, consistency is important. It’s crucial to start with a manageable goal, build up slowly, and find what works for you.
“If you say to meditate for an hour, people will not do it,” Winston notes. “The bar is too high.”
In her six-week class — the same one from that sleep study mentioned earlier — Winston has her students start with five minutes and add time every two weeks. So they progress from five minutes, to 10, to 15, and finally to 20 by the end of the course.
Ready to give meditation a try? All you need is five minutes — and a bit of advice.
7 Mindfulness Meditation Tips
1. Try a SilverSneakers LIVE Mindfulness & Meditation Express class
This online group class is a great way to try out new mindfulness techniques from the comfort of your couch — but with a trained instructor on hand who can answer questions.
“Nobody else can see you while you’re in my mindfulness class, so it’s a totally judgment-free zone,” Green says. “You can be in your pajamas, or you can be dressed to the nines. Nobody will know.”
Members who join Green’s class often tell her about the real-world benefits they get from mindfulness meditation.
“They’ll say things like, ‘I tried your breathing technique when I went to the dentist and it really helped me calm down,’” Green says.
2. Designate a spot and a time of day.
No, you don’t need a special meditation pillow. Any chair or even your bed will do. But you do want to meditate in the same spot and at the same time every day.
As with any new habit, creating cues like time and place can help it stick, Winston says. “It’ll train your mind that this is where you’re meditating,” she says, “in this particular chair at this time of day.”
Pick a location where you’re not likely to be disturbed, Winston says. And choose whatever time works for you.
“For me, I like to meditate before the day starts because if I don’t I just get into the busy-ness of the day,” says Winston.
Others like to meditate before bed or when they get home from work or after their day’s activities.
3. Sneak meditation into your existing routine.
Consider tying meditation to a habit you already do, Winston suggests. For example, every time you make your morning cup of coffee, meditate for five minutes.
Again, consistency and repetition are key. Tying meditation to a habit you already have will help remind you to do it each day.
Recommended reading: 6-Day Mindfulness Challenge
4. Get comfortable.
There’s no rule about sitting cross-legged to meditate. You can also sit in a chair with your feet on the floor or even lie down.
Pick whatever position is comfortable for you and makes you feel supported, Winston says.
5. Tune into your breath.
Mindfulness is about focusing on your present experience. That could be just about anything — sounds that are happening around you, physical sensations, or emotions. A common starting place is to zero in on your breath.
“It’s something that’s always there to observe, so it can help you get the hang of focusing on the present,” Lindsay says.
Focus on wherever you feel your breath the strongest, says Winston. That could be the rise and fall of your chest, the expanding and contracting of your stomach, or the sensation of breath through your nose.
One mindfulness meditation breathing exercise that is good for beginners is called Box Breathing:
- Breathe in slowly for four counts
- Hold your breath for four counts
- Breathe out slowly for four counts
- Hold your breath for four counts
- Repeat the sequence as many times as you’d like
6. Approach mindfulness meditation with openness and curiosity.
Remember that attitude piece that Lindsay talked about earlier? According to her research, that part is really important — and really hard.
We humans are wired for mind-wandering, Winston says — it helps us scan for threats, plan for the future, and remember the past. “It’s a survival tactic,” she says.
When you’re meditating and being instructed not to do that, it can feel like a struggle. “Early on in mindfulness training, people report feeling frustrated and aggravated,” Lindsay says. “But once you learn that attitude of acceptance and equanimity, you’re not fighting yourself so hard. You’re being kind to yourself.”
7. Download an app.
Mindfulness meditation apps are another useful tool to help you begin a mindfulness practice. Headspace and Calm are two of the most well-known. Others include Ten Percent Happier and Brightmind Meditation. UCLA has its own app, called UCLA Mindful, guided by Winston and her fellow instructors.
Whichever app you choose, start with the free version and see how you respond to it, Winston says. It’s important that you connect with it and that you like the instructor’s voice. If you don’t like the instructor’s voice, choose a different instructor — or a different app.
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