We know. You’d rather spend your free time careening down a mountain on skiis or a bike, banging out a brutal WOD, or exploring the next great fitness destination than sitting with your eyes closed trying to “turn off” your brain. But meditation—in all its forms and iterations—and mindfulness techniques can actually make you better at your athletic endeavors.
Beyond fitness, meditation and mindfulness practices can boost your mental well-being, ward off illnesses minor and major, and even help you sleep better. And that’s not even the half of it.
1. Exercise more—and enjoy it
A study published in the Journal of Clinical Sports Psychology found athletes who practice mindful meditation techniques (sitting meditation, mindful yoga, and walking meditation) are far more motivated to exercise regularly and are more satisfied with their workouts than less-mindful guys.
In the study, researchers put 11 archers and 21 golfers through a four-week long “Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement” program to see how it affected their flow (the mental state in which an athlete is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in their sport).
After, the athletes reported feeling less anxiety, pressure to achieve perfectionism, thought disruption, and better confidence, mindfulness, and flow.
2. Sleep better
You’ve had those nights. You slide in to bed, close your eyes, exhausted, but before you can fall asleep your brain starts buzzing with thoughts of unfinished projects and stressful situations. Or you’ve had many of those nights and suffer from one of the most insufferable sleep disorders: insomnia. Well, before you turn to pills, try meditation. (But of course, you should always talk to your doctor first and foremost.)
In a study, which appeared in JAMA Internal Medicine, 25 middle-aged and older adults with sleeping problems completed a mindfulness awareness program that taught them to focus on in-the-moment experiences, thoughts, and emotions. Another group of 25 completed a sleep education class that taught them ways to improve their sleep habits. Both groups met six times, once a week for two-hour sessions.
In the end, the mindfulness group experienced less insomnia, fatigue, and depression.
Want to try it yourself? Study author Herbert Benson recommends practicing mindfulness for 20 minutes during the day. “The idea is to create a reflex to more easily bring forth a sense of relaxation,” he said in a press release. “That way, it’s easier to evoke the relaxation response at night when you can’t sleep.”
3. Come up with more game-changing ideas
Research published in Frontiers in Cognition found meditation can make you a more creative thinker.
Divergent thinking is a style of creativity that follows the flow of idea generation. It’s measured using the so-called “Alternate Uses Task” method where participants are required to think up as many uses as possible for a particular object, such as a pen.
The researchers had men and women participate in “Open Monitoring” meditation (you’re encouraged to be receptive to all thoughts and sensations without focusing on any particular concept or object) and “Focused Attention” meditation (you’re asked to focus on one particular thought or object—and only that).
After an “Open Monitoring” session, the participants performed better in divergent thinking and generated more new ideas than previously, but “Focused Attention” (FA) meditation didn’t have much of an impact.
4. Get sick less often
Here’s an unlikely benefit mindfulness meditation and moderate exercise share: protection against colds and flu, according to research published in the Annals of Family Medicine.
In the study, 149 men and women (average age: 59) were given training sessions for eight weeks or did nothing. Fifty-one were assigned to mindfulness meditation sessions, 47 were assigned to moderate exercise (like biking or running), and 51 served as the control group.
Those who underwent mindfulness training had 27 total “episodes” of cold or flu symptoms, people who exercised had 26 total “episodes” of cold and flu symptoms, and the control group had 40. What’s more, when the meditation-doers and exercisers did get sick, they experiences less severe, shorter colds that resulted in fewer days missed from work. In all, those who meditated experienced a 40 to 50 percent decrease in cold and flu symptoms and exercise was linked with a 30 to 40 percent decrease in symptoms.
5. Reduce chronic pain
Meditation might be a natural yet effective alternative to painkillers for reducing chronic pain and its associated distress and depression, according to research from the American Pain Society.
In the study, published in The Journal of Pain, 89 patients with chronic neck pain were randomly placed into meditation and exercise program groups for eight weeks. While meditation and exercise both reduced pain during movement and boosted participants’ quality of life, meditation outshined exercise by maximizing pain relief and the ability to cope with discomfort.
6. Lower the risk of heart attack, stroke, and death
Transcendental Meditation (often simply called “TM”) is the most researched form of meditation. It has a celeb following that includes some of our former cover guys (including Matt Bomer, Joe Manganiello, and Hugh Jackman). You have to get trained by a teacher, but it’s painless, we promise. Then, you’re supposed to practice for 20-minutes twice a day. It’s a mantra-based meditation so all you have to do is sit with your eyes closed and repeat the mantra (it’s a “meaningless” word given to you when you’re trained) in your head.
Since the benefits of TM on overall health are so impactful, researchers from the American Heart Association wanted to see if the practice could reduce heart disease risk. In the study, 201 people were randomly assigned to participate in a transcendental meditation stress-reducing program or a health education class about modifying diet and exercise. Transcendental meditation participants sat with their eyes closed for 20 minutes twice a day, allowing their minds and bodies to rest deeply while still remaining present and alert in the moment, while health education group advisees were instructed to spend 20 minutes a day practicing heart-healthy behaviors like exercising, eating healthy meals, and relaxing.
Transcendental meditation helped African Americans with heart disease lower their risk of death, heart attack, and stroke. (Death from heart disease is 50 percent higher in black adults compared to whites in the United States, which is why researchers looked at this population.) Even in healthy men and women, meditation helped them to lower their blood pressure, stress, and anger compared with those who attended the health education class.
7. Relieve stress
Stress is something we could all use less of. Luckily, that’s achievable with brief mindfulness meditation practice, according to research from Carnegie Mellon University.
In the three-day experiment, 33 healthy men and women aged 18-30 years old took part in mindful meditation for 25 minutes a day; they were given breathing exercises to help them stay present and focused. Another 33 participants completed a three-day cognitive training program where they were asked to critically analyze poetry in order to enhance their problem-solving skills.
After the third day, all participants were asked to complete speech and math tasks in front of evaluators and self-report their stress levels and provide saliva samples to measure their levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.
Those who partook in the brief mindful meditation sessions were more resilient under stress.
8. Fight depression
A mind-body combination of meditation and exercise done just twice a week for two months can reduce depressive symptoms by up to 40 percent—even in people who don’t suffer from full-on depression. That’s all it takes, according to a study from Rutgers University.
Fifty-five men and women (22 suffering with depression, 30 mentally healthy) completed an eight-week program. Twice a week participants spent 30 minutes on focused-attention meditation (a type of meditation that requires you to focus on one thing) in which they were asked to focus on their breath, then complete 30 minutes of aerobic exercise. During the meditation, participants were instructed to redirect their focus on their breathing if any thoughts began to float to the past or future. The aim of this was to enable them to “accept moment-to-moment changes in attention.”
After the two months, all participants expressed fewer depressive symptoms, spent less time worrying about negative situations, and were able to deal with problems and prevent negative thoughts more effectively.
9. Become more compassionate
Researchers from Northeastern and Harvard Universities found meditation can actually make you a more compassionate, virtuous person. And no, not by brainwashing either. In the study, participants completed eight-week training sessions in two types of meditation. (It’s not clear, however, what the two meditation types were.)
So, they staged a waiting room with three chairs, two of which were filled by actors, leaving the third empty seat for the test subject. Then, a third actor entered the room on crutches, appearing to be in great physical pain while the seated actors fiddled with their phones or read a book. The researchers wanted to see if subjects who took part in meditation classes would be more likely to come to the aid of a person in pain—despite everyone else in a room ignoring him/her.
Among the non-meditating participants, only about 15 percent of people sprung in to action to help. But that number rose exponentially—up to 50 percent—between the groups who took meditation sessions.
10. Feel less lonely
Unfortunately there are a slew of health problems that are linked to loneliness. It’s is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, even death. Not so cheery. Luckily mindfulness meditation can help.
In the study, researchers recruited 40 healthy adults aged 55-85 who were interested in learning mindfulness meditation techniques. The men and women were assessed at the beginning and end of the study using an established loneliness scale; blood samples were also collected.
Participants were randomly assigned to receive either an eight-week “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” program or no treatment. The MBSR program consisted of weekly two-hour meetings in which participants learned body awareness techniques. They worked on breathing and understanding how to mindfully attend to their emotions and everyday practices, as well as practicing mindfulness meditation exercises for 30 minutes a day at home.
After the mindfulness meditation training, participants reported being less lonely. Researchers also found their blood had elevated levels of pro-inflammatory gene expression in their immune cells. In short, there was less inflammation, which is good because inflammation in the body can cause cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and neurodegenerative diseases.