“Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better, it’s about befriending who we are.” — Pema Chödrön
Diets of the week, micro-managing calories, obsession with the most optimal workouts, and other minutiae garners the majority of the attention in the health and wellness world. However, it's stress that is often times the culprit for people's health issues.
The thing that makes stress so difficult is that it manifests through multiple identities such as relationships, diet, exercise, emotional, mental, and financial among many others.
Stress in the right amounts is beneficial, but when there’s too much of it, recovery lowers due to the autonomic system being off-balanced.
In fact, in a Yale study in 2012, researchers found that psychological stress was associated with poor muscle recovery. And in another separate study, researchers found that excessive stress disrupts the architecture of the developing brain.
Why is this important?
Because the future of our society and world depends on the ability to create a conducive environment for people to thrive. If we (this present generation) are highly stressed and fail to control stress, this will spill over into the next generation. If we’re stressed, then our children have a higher likelihood as well because of the prolonged activation of the stress response systems in the body and the brain from cortisol.
Ok, the brief philosophical rant is over.
With all of this said, unmanaged stress and overwhelm combined with unhealthy thought patterns lead to a near-impossible chance of succeeding with your fitness goals.
But, combatting this can be executed through a simple meditation practice.
This doesn’t mean the fancy type where you have to sit in silence for a long time or chant mantras. This simply means scheduling designated times during the day to find silence and take a breather from the hectic world.
If you’re struggling with your fitness, perhaps it’s not the workout or the nutritional regimen that needs addressing. Perhaps it’s the stress management that needs addressing.
Here’s is how meditation helps your fitness and life.
1. Increases your focus and productivity
Cal Newport, author of ‘Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World’ describes deep work as “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.”
As you meditate over time, you’ll become less prone to distracting thoughts and environments while simultaneously increasing your input.
2. Reduces your stress and anxiety
Stress is the giant elephant in the room that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Often overlooked in the stress department is its impact on your emotional and mental health. When those two worlds aren’t operating at their peak, you’re going to be less likely to make rationale food decisions.
Uncontrolled levels of stress and anxiety leave you prone to illnesses while slowing down your rate of weight loss along with recovery due to increased cortisol levels.
But the key to dealing with stress isn’t attempting to erase it completely, that’s a fairy tale. The key instead is to learn how to dance with it gracefully. And a great way to learn how to dance with stress starts with developing a practice of mindfulness.
Mindfulness helps with stress because it plays a positive role in your overall recovery which can be analyzed through your heart-rate variability (HRV).
Think of your heart beating and the delays in between those beats are your HRV and this exposes how your nervous system is firing. If you’re favoring toward a sympathetic system default, then your heart rate is speeding up. If it’s parasympathetic, then it’s going to be slower.
Each has their positives, but for daily living, being in a parasympathetic state is a little better since it’ll reflect the ability to better able handle stress.
Meditation helps with boosting parasympathetic activity (thus increasing HRV) and decreasing cardiovascular disease risk.
3. Helps with the quality of your sleep
How many times have you laid down and can’t sleep because you’re having racing thoughts?
This describes a large population of people who haven’t found a way to control their internal world.
But through developing a meditation practice, you’ll improve your sleep quality due to slowing your thoughts which leads to fewer feelings of overwhelm.
As described in a study that appeared in the JAMA Internal Medicine, meditation helps with managing daily levels of stress along with improving sleep through helping you focus on the “moment-by-moment experiences, thoughts, and emotions.”
And in another study published in the Journal of Behavior Research and Therapy, visualizing your ideal environment and life was proven to be a beneficial aid in improving your sleep. This is something that has tremendously helped me. In fact, I read over my one-year vision nightly along with traits about the person I want to be, the people who are in my life, where I’m living, and how I’m contributing to the world.
Visualizing your ideal environment and life is a great mind-body technique because it helps connect your conscious and unconscious minds, which leads to more desirable scenarios while decreasing stressful thoughts.
4. Helps with weight loss
Often times, when we think of weight loss, we’re quick to direct our attention to the workouts and diets. Yet, many people will have their macros and workout dialed in but the weight still isn’t falling off.
Despite the work that you’re seemingly putting forth toward losing weight, not managing your environmental and relational stressors can undo your efforts.
By meditating, you actively address your stress levels and most importantly, strengthen up your mental fitness. When you display strong levels of mental fitness, you’re going to be in a better state to make daily decisions.
5. Increases gratitude
Through meditating, you’re lowering your blood pressure along with your overall levels of calmness. And as a by-product of this, you’re increasing your levels of gratitude because you’re able to focus and appreciate what you have in the present moment.
A study conducted by UCLA & the University of Miami found that when people who wrote down what they were grateful for on a weekly basis ended up being more optimistic and cheerful about the upcoming week than those who didn’t.
6. Improves your emotional intelligence & changes your brain
In this particular study, after eight weeks of meditation, participants ended up with denser brain tissue in areas connected to emotional regulation, memory, and learning which suggests that mindfulness training alters intrinsic functional connectivity in our brain. This leads to better focus along with higher reflective awarenesses of experiences.
Another factor among this is the decreased grey matter in parts of the amygdala, which is part of the brain that is connected to stress and fear (think fight or flight response).
While under stress, our amygdala is taking charge, leading us to make rash decisions based on emotions. But through meditation, your amygdala relaxes and activity in your prefrontal cortex increases which is much slower to respond to situations. Therefore, you have to stop and think about a situation leading to more rational decisions.
If you would like to try starting a meditation practice and would like some guidance, my friends over at Simple Habit have graciously sent me a code for 20 free days of premium guided meditations. Simple Habit is like the Spotify of meditation since there are different times and topics of all sorts to meditate on. I've been using a handful of these for the past few months. Click here for your free 20 days.