Its "Ohhh So Good For You"

If you were asked to guess what healthy habit most people are NOT including in their life style, what would your answer be?  Take a guess and then continue reading.

I found it interesting that the February issue of "Self" magazine, last Sunday's edition of the Vancouver Globe and Mail, and last month in the Washington Post authors all addressed this incredibly healthy habit.  And yet as mentioned in the article in "Self" only 13% of their readers are taking advantage of meditation

In both the article in "Self" and in the "Globe and Mail" they quote findings from studies that group meditation with mindful exercise, such as Yoga, Tai Chi or Qigong.  The research demonstrates several positive attributes such as the following:

Dialing down your stress.  Herbert Benson, MD,  director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital found that meditation elicits the relaxation response which suppresses the release of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.  It is also noted that heart rates and blood pressure drop during meditation. 

Dial up your immune response.  In addition to suppressing the stress hormones, the relaxation response causes cells to release micro droplets of nitric oxide which dilates blood vessels increasing immune response.  Scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that graduates of a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR for short, course produced more antibodies after flu shots than did non-mediators, which indicated a stronger immune response.  Dr. Benson reports finding that these mind/body methods worked as well as many drugs but without the side effects. 

Your brain grows.  All three articles demonstrated that meditation alters the size and density of the brain.  In a 2010 study it was shown that after 8 weeks "participants with no previous meditation experience showed increased grey-matter density in regions involved in learning and memory, emotion regulation, self-awareness and perspective taking."

Your genes can be altered.  In a relatively small double blind study of 38 participants where half meditated daily and half did not, and controlling for other factors were implemented, Dr. Benson found that genes associated with stress-related illnesses behaved differently in the two groups.  "These genes control not only stress but also premature aging and inflammation.  It seems meditators' genes were essentially telling their body to stress less and age more slowly." 

Dialing down rage, aggression and depression.  The Globe and Mail article states, "Unlike transcendental meditation and various chanting practices, MBSR is not based solely on focusing the mind, says Zindel Segal, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto who developed Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy to treat depression. Instead, mindfulness emphasizes awareness of thoughts, feelings, sounds and sensations from an internal observer’s perspective, without an attempt to judge or alter the experience. “You’re watching the moment by moment ebb and flow of emotions,” Dr. Segal says. “You’re not running away from them but you’re also not getting overwhelmed by them.”

With this overwhelming evidence that meditation or mind/body exercises are healthy for us, why aren't more of people participating in this relatively easy, inexpensive practice?   The four main road blocks I heard as I asked patients and employees are listed below.  Do you fall into any of these groups?

  • I don't know how.
  • I don't have time. 
  • I can't sit still.
  • I didn't realize how healthy it is. 

For those of you who think you don't have time to meditate I suppose you are thinking to yourself, "What stop everything productive so I can sit and do nothing?"  According to the studies discussed in these articles, just 5 minutes of being conscious of your body while sitting, stretching, doing the dishes, or exercising is a healthy start.  It will help you to be more productive throughout your day or to sleep deeper.  

A Detroit based chemical plant posted the following results three years after implementing meditation:

  • Absenteeism fell by 85%
  • Productivity rose 120%
  • Injuries dropped 70%
  • Profits increased 520%

If the word meditation sets off a ticking time bomb of anxiety at just the thought of having to sit still for any length of time, relax, take a deep breath, hold it for a count of 4 and fully release the breath.  There, was that so difficult?  Meditation can be as simple as breathing.  Slow the breath down.  Try deepening the breath into your belly.  How about breathing in through your nose and slowly out through your mouth.  Hold your nose, release just the right nostril, inhale, plug, release the left nostril and exhale.  Becoming aware of your breathing and learning to control it is a great way to change the terrain of the body.

Try going for a walk and noticing things around you, the color of buildings, the scent in the air, the noises, how many different colors are in the sky.  If that is still not active enough for you, go to a yoga class, try Qigong or go for a jog.  But again, stay attuned to your body, your senses, your emotions and your breath.  Try not to judge any of these but simply observe them for the time being. 

This morning, as I stepped out of my car in the parking lot at the office, I felt the nip of cold bite my cheeks.  I stopped for just a moment to take a deep breath of the crisp fresh morning air.  It registered in my mind that the air was indeed crisp.  How crisp?  What did it remind me of?  The idea that presented itself in my mind's eye was that of me as a child pouring milk on a bowl of Rice Krispies and listening to the crackle.  The air was so crisp it crackled.  That memory brought a smile not only to my face but to my heart.  I closed the car door and proceeded into work with a smile on my face and ready to share my heart with our patients.  That is the wonder of a momentary awareness called meditation.

Meditation and mind body exercise are inexpensive, at your fingertips, and totally individual, so what do you have to loose?  Nothing, except perhaps a little stress, a little weight, some pain, or depression.  Yet as you can see from the studies done, you have so much to gain.  Go ahead, give it a try.

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