When you put your mind to it, you can improve many aspects of your health. How so? By incorporating mindfulness into your lifestyle.
“Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us,” according to the Foundation for a Mindful Society.
In many cases, people turn to meditation to engage in mindfulness. But as The Chopra Center points out, mindfulness and meditation are not one in the same. In other words, you can practice mindfulness without meditating. For instance, mindfulness can come in the form of leisurely sipping a cup of tea, taking a relaxing shower, embarking on a peaceful hike, appreciating a gorgeous sunset or slowly savoring a meal.
However you embrace mindfulness, it can produce health benefits. Here are four ways.
1. Weight loss.
A study published in 2018 by the Endocrine Society’s Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism showed that mindfulness might help you lose more weight.
In the study, obese people who underwent mindfulness training shed more pounds in six months than obese people who didn’t attend mindfulness courses.
Researchers studied 53 people who participated in a weight management program in the United Kingdom. Among those, 33 took part in at least three out of four mindfulness sessions.
Participants in the mindfulness courses lost an average of nearly 6.3 pounds more than the 20 people who did not attend the courses. People who completed the mindfulness training indicated they were better able to plan meals and felt more confident in self-managing their weight loss.
“Mindfulness has huge potential as a strategy for achieving and maintaining good health and well-being,” Thomas Barber, one of the study’s authors, says in a news release.
“With the burgeoning impact of 21st century chronic disease, much of which relates to lifestyle behavior choices, it is logical that [the] focus should be on enabling the populace to make appropriate lifestyle decisions and empowering subsequent … behavior change,” Barber adds. “In the context of obesity and eating-related behaviors, we have demonstrated that mindfulness techniques can do just that.”
Along the same lines, a study released in 2016 by researchers at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, found that people who exhibited everyday, or “dispositional,” mindfulness were less likely to be obese than people who didn’t exhibit mindfulness. Everyday mindfulness refers to an inherent personality trait that can be taught, whereas mindfulness meditation refers to a conscious, focused practice.
The study, appearing in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, looked at mindfulness ratings that were self-reported by 394 people enrolled in the New England Family Study. Researchers also measured their body fat and collected health, lifestyle and demographic data.
After adjusting for factors such as age and smoking, the researchers discovered that people with low scores for mindfulness (below four on a 15-point scale) were 34 percent more likely to be obese than people who notched a score of six. Also, people with lower mindfulness scores had an average of a little over a pound of belly fat than people with higher scores.
While the study’s results are encouraging, researchers cautioned that their work does not prove that heightened mindfulness triggers weight loss.
2. Stress relief.
A study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh indicated that mindfulness meditation can alleviate psychological stress.
In the study, published in 2014 in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, 66 healthy people age 18 to 30 participated in a three-day experiment. One group of participants completed 25-minute mindfulness meditation sessions over three consecutive days, including breathing exercises. A second group of participants went through a three-day program in which they analyzed poetry as a way to hone their problem-solving skills.
Afterward, all of the participants had to complete stressful math and science tasks before a panel of evaluators. Those who’d undergone the meditation training reported reduced levels of stress and exhibited lower levels of stress hormones compared with their counterparts.
3. Prevention or reduction of cravings.
A study released in 2018 suggested that mindfulness strategies might help prevent or reduce cravings for food and drugs. Researchers at City University of London published their findings in Clinical Psychology Review.
The researchers’ examination of 30 studies found that mindfulness strategies might combat cravings by occupying a part of our short-term memory that’s connected to cravings.
“Whether mindfulness strategies are more effective than alternative strategies, such as engaging in visual imagery, has yet to be established,” Katy Tapper, author of the review and a senior psychology lecturer at City University of London, says in a news release. “However, there is also some evidence to suggest that engaging in [a] regular mindfulness practice may reduce the extent to which people feel the need to react to their cravings, though further research is needed to confirm such an effect.”
4. Treatment of depression and anxiety.
In a study published in 2014, Swedish researchers determined that group mindfulness treatment is as effective as individual cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) — a common type of psychotherapy — in helping patients with depression and anxiety.
Researchers from Lund University and the Region Skåne county council conducted the study at 16 primary care centers in southern Sweden. Each center had two specially trained mindfulness instructors.
Over an eight-week period in 2012, a total of 215 patients went through group mindfulness treatment or regular treatment (mostly individual CBT, also known as talk therapy). Patients in both groups reported an almost identical decrease in depression and anxiety.
“This means that group mindfulness treatment should be considered as an alternative to individual psychotherapy, especially at primary health care centers that can’t offer everyone individual therapy,” Jan Sundquist, a professor of family medicine at Lund who led the study, says in a news release.
Similarly, a study published in 2018 in the American Academy of Family Physician’s Annals of Family Medicine concluded that mindfulness meditation training reduced the occurrence of major depression and improved depression symptoms among primary care patients.
Comparing a group of adults with depression who participated in weekly two-hour mindfulness training sessions for eight consecutive weeks with a group of adults with depression who had no psychological intervention, those in the mindfulness cluster displayed a significant decrease in major depression and a smaller decrease in depression symptoms.
Based on those findings, the researchers determined that mindfulness training is “a feasible method” of preventing major depression.