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Meditation Is Good for Your Physical Health, Too

Breathing exercises and other calming practices can reduce hypertension, pain and more

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Stígur Már Karlsson / Heimsmyndir/Getty Images

We know that meditation and other mindfulness practices can help soothe a frazzled psyche. Now science has caught up with what many who have embraced the practice have intuited for centuries: It can also play a big part in easing a long list of health conditions.

Why? Because “every chronic illness is intimately related to stress,” says James S. Gordon, a psychiatrist, the founder and director of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine, in Washington, D.C., and author of Transforming Trauma: The Path to Hope and Healing. “If you can reduce the stress, you can make a difference — sometimes a major difference, sometimes a minor difference, but almost always a difference — in any chronic illness or disease.”

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Gordon points to hypertension, diabetes, pain syndromes and arthritis. Meditation can also help alleviate symptoms, he adds. “Meditation may or may not prolong the life of someone with cancer, but it definitely decreases pain and the nausea or vomiting that comes with chemotherapy. It improves their mood and makes them less anxious.”

“If you can reduce the stress, you can make a difference ... in any chronic illness or disease.”

James S. Gordon

Heart help

Research backs up Gordon's claims. In one study, which took place at the Harvard-affiliated Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, older adults with hard-to-treat isolated systolic hypertension who underwent relaxation response training were more likely to be able to control their blood pressure. (Some could reduce or even eliminate medication.)

In a 2020 data analysis of more than 61,000 survey participants, conducted annually by the National Center for Health Statistics, which appeared in the American Journal of Cardiology, researchers found that people who meditated had lower rates of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, and coronary artery disease than those who did not.

What's more, an eight-week program of daily mindfulness meditation was shown to reduce the fear of activity that often affects heart attack survivors, according to research presented earlier this year at an online congress of the European Society of Cardiology. The study compared a group of heart attack survivors who did 15 minutes of daily mindfulness meditation with a similar group of heart attack survivors who didn't meditate. By week four, participants in the meditation group had less fear of movement, and by week eight, they reported better quality of life than those who didn't meditate.


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Pain response

Meditation is particularly effective in changing how we perceive and respond to pain. “Pain isn't just the experience of physical pain” says Ginny Wholley, a certified mindfulness-based stress-reduction teacher at the University of Massachusetts Memorial Health Care Center for Mindfulness. “If you bump your knee on the corner of a table, your muscles tighten and your heart beats faster. That's that secondary stress response to pain.” Then there's the emotional response — feeling a twinge of pain may make you feel more anxious. Through the practice of mindfulness, Wholley says, we are able to mitigate the secondary stress response and the emotional response to pain.

The practice of tai chi — a combination of slow, graceful, choreographed movements — often called “meditation in motion,” is “like panacea-light,” says Tommy Kirchhoff, a tai chi master and creator of the DVD Gentle, Sitting Tai Chi. A 2015 study published in the journal Arthritis & Rheumatism found that tai chi can help with osteoarthritis by improving mobility, reducing stiffness and helping ease pain. Researchers have even found evidence that tai chi seems to boost the immune systems of older adults, helping them fend off the virus that leads to shingles.

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Better digestion

By creating calm, you can also enhance the functioning of the gastrointestinal tract, rebalancing your microbiota, the bacteria in your gut, so you're better able to absorb nutrients, says Gordon. In a 2020 study, published in the journal Neurogastroenterology & Motility, patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) took eight weeks of mindfulness-based stress reduction training. Following their training, more than 70 percent of the participants reported a reduction in the severity of their IBS symptoms.

The key to lowering stress levels — and reaping those health benefits — lies in calming the sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system (responsible for our body's fight-or-flight response) and activating our parasympathetic nervous system, which helps return our body to a calm stage. Focusing on the breath, and learning to slow it down, can lower stress hormones. It's taught to veterans with PTSD, in corporate settings, pain clinics, prisons and anywhere else stress levels are high (i.e., practically everywhere these days).

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5 short breathing exercises

1. Focused breathing: Concentrative meditation involves focusing on a single point. It could be a visual image (say, a picture of a flower or the flickering flame of a candle), a sound or the sensation of your own breath. One technique Gordon recommends is called soft belly breathing. Sit in a comfortable chair. With your eyes closed, breathe slowly and deeply. Focus on the breath coming in through your nose and going out through your mouth, with your belly soft and relaxed. “You can say the word ‘soft’ to yourself as you breathe in and ‘belly’ as you breathe out,” says Gordon. When a stray thought pops into your head — and it will — acknowledge it, then let it pass, bringing yourself back to the present moment. You can do this exercise for 10 minutes, five minutes, or even three minutes.

2. Slower breathing: Try slowing your breath even more. If you normally inhale for three seconds and exhale for three seconds, try increasing that to four seconds in and four seconds out. Another technique is to stay at three seconds when inhaling but slowly increase your exhales to four, five or even six seconds. “Inhalation is tied more to the sympathetic nervous system, exhalation to the parasympathetic nervous system,” says Timothy McCall, a board-certified physician specializing in internal medicine and author of Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing. “So if you start to increase the exhalation relative to the inhalation, it tends to be more calming.”

3. Mantra repetition: While doing a deep-breathing exercise, repeat a word or a sound. It could be anything — om, one, peace, love. For those who are religious, it might be a prayer. One of McCall's favorite mediations, sohum mantra meditation, comes from yoga. “This is a meditation based on the sound your breath makes when it comes into your nose and when it leaves your nose,” says McCall. “That's what the ancient yogis thought they could hear upon inhalation (so) and on exhalation of (hum). You're not making those sounds — you're listening for sounds with each inhalation and exhalation.”

4. Alternate nostril breathing: A 2013 study found that people who practiced this technique not only lowered their stress levels, their cardiovascular function improved. How to do it: Close your eyes. Use the thumb of your right hand to block your right nostril, and inhale deeply through the left for six seconds. Now cover your left nostril with the fourth finger of your right hand, release your right nostril, and exhale slowly for six seconds. With your left nostril blocked, breathe in through your right side for six seconds; cover your right nostril again, release your left and exhale for six seconds. Repeat for at least two minutes.

5. Body scan: This technique can be helpful for chronic pain or to simply release tension. Lie on your back, eyes closed, breathing slowly. Allow your mind to move up your body — from toe to foot to ankle, and through the rest of your body. Bring attention to each part of your body, being aware of any sensations, then let it go and move on. If you notice pain, acknowledge it and gently breathe through it.

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