We’ve come a long way from the days when meditation was considered an activity reserved for monks or hippies. But even so, it isn’t mainstream – yet.
Which is too bad, given the mounting evidence supporting the fact that it can benefit all of us.
And when you incorporate meditation into one of your daily healthy habits, you’ll be surprised at its ability to generally help you feel more content and satisfied with your life.
Not too shabby, huh?
Many of us imagine that meditation requires you to sit on a fancy pillow while chanting and twirling beaded necklaces.
Let that image go (unless it appeals to you).
Meditation can simply be described as a state of being, where your mind is completely clear.
This means that while you’re meditating, your mind is free from worries and stressors – or any thoughts, for that matter. Meditation is something that can be done any time, anywhere you choose.
There are many ways to meditate but most forms can be categorized as either active or passive meditation.
Active meditation involves physical movement, such as practicing yoga. Passive meditation involves no movement and only requires you to sit quietly and comfortably, and perhaps listen to a guided meditation or focus on your breath.
Both forms of meditation offer the same health and wellness benefits.
So, it’s important to know that there’s no “right” or “best” type of meditation. Basically, it comes down to what works best for each individual.
Scientific Benefits of Meditation
If you’re on the fence about starting a meditation practice, I’m hoping this list of 10 benefits might prompt you to take action.
Here’s just one example illustrating why I’m a proponent of meditation: a while ago, Harvard University published an article about the benefits of transcendental meditation on patients with heart disease and high blood pressure.
Transcendental meditation is a type of meditation that focuses on relieving pain or anxiety by using the repetition of a mantra.
Researchers followed 200 patients with cardiovascular problems who participated in a nine-year clinical trial. Half of these patients were randomly selected to practice transcendental meditation twice each day.
Only 20 of the 100 patients who practiced the prescribed meditation suffered any further cardiovascular complications. The patients in the control group who didn’t practice any form of meditation experienced 31 cardiovascular complications – a significantly higher rate.
Both groups followed similar lifestyles in terms of exercise and diet, and both received education around cardiovascular health (1).
So, what do you think?
Is meditation starting to sound more legitimate as a healthy habit?
While we’re just beginning to truly study and understand the health benefits of meditation, here are some that are undeniable.
10 Proven Benefits of Meditation
1. Reduced Cortisol Levels
Cortisol is a stress hormone that plays a key role in our body’s “fight or flight” response, which is a natural reaction that happens in our body when we sense danger.
While it’s quite literally a life-saving physiological response, there is one slight complication: your body doesn’t know the difference between perceived stress and truly dangerous situations that threaten survival.
This means that whether you’re stuck in traffic on your way to an important meeting or you’re being chased down by a predator, your body will elicit the exact same response.
The release of cortisol and other stress hormones (such as adrenaline) can be helpful: Adrenaline allows your pupils to dilate so you can see better, while cortisol gives you that extra energy boost you need to flee from danger.
But when your body is on stress overload and hormones like cortisol are released on a regular basis, it can create serious health problems.
Chronically elevated cortisol levels have been linked to mental health problems, blood sugar imbalances such as hyperglycemia and diabetes, a weakened immune system, impaired memory and mental focus, and unhealthy weight gain (2)(3)(4).
Also, chronically elevated levels of cortisol are one of the underlying causes of inflammation in the body.
This is important, because chronic inflammation invites all kinds of other health problems to occur – including suppressing immune system function (5).
How can you possibly maintain an optimal level of health if your body can’t fight off the pathogens that lead to illness and disease?
[Related: 3 Startling Ways Stress Causes Weight Gain]
As you can see, for your longterm health it’s vital to efficiently manage your stress, and meditation certainly helps.
Even if you think you’re not living a stressful life, stress comes in several different forms, including nutrient deficiencies, suppressed emotion from past traumas, and physical stress, which can include either too much or too little exercise.
The good news is that meditation has been scientifically proven to lower cortisol levels.
In fact, a recent study of 30 second-year medical students showed that practicing meditation each day yielded reduced blood cortisol levels after only four days (6).
2. Reduced Pain
Now that we know that stress causes excess cortisol in the body, and that cortisol creates inflammation, we can turn our attention to another benefit of meditation: pain reduction.
Pain is a product of inflammation.
Inflammation is characterized by swelling, pain, and redness, and it’s the body’s way of eliciting a healing response.
Now, if you get into a serious accident and experience severe physical trauma, I’m not suggesting that one session of mindful meditation is going to fix you right up.
However, since meditation has been proven to lower cortisol levels, it may help lower the natural inflammatory response that’s associated with pain.
This applies more to minor discomforts, such as aches or pains. But reducing stress’s powerful impact on our body can make a real difference when it comes to inflammation and the pain it causes.
3. Lowered Blood Pressure
Stress hormones can temporarily increase your blood pressure by narrowing your blood vessels and causing your heart to beat at a rapid rate.
High blood pressure is linked to several cardiovascular problems and is thought to be caused by ongoing stress (7).
You’re probably beginning to see the correlation here between stress, illness, and meditation.
Not surprisingly, another benefit of meditation includes lowering blood pressure, since meditation can help reduce the body’s stress response.
4. Faster Post-Workout Recovery
Muscle tissue breaks down and rebuilds with exercise.
But how long it takes for your muscles to recover and be ready to work out again depends on your current state of health, diet, lifestyle, and genetics.
Now, let’s say you’re under high amounts of stress from your work and personal life, which are two mental stressors that contribute to elevated cortisol levels.
Mental stress causes an inflammatory response in the body, which impairs how quickly your body is able to repair muscle tissue.
I know it may seem like a stretch to say meditating improves your body’s ability to efficiently repair muscle tissue, but we’ve already made the connection between inflammation, cortisol, and how meditating can help lower cortisol.
It makes sense, then, that meditation can help you deal with stressors that can cause inflammation and impair the body’s ability to repair muscle tissue quickly.
When your body isn’t dealing with elevated stress, it can perform each one of its functions that much easier – which includes rebuilding muscle tissue after exercising.
5. An Improved Immune System (Fewer Sick Days)
Stress has been clinically shown to weaken the immune system.
Now, there’s more than one explanation why this happens, but one reason is because the body uses essential vitamins and minerals to deal with stress – vitamin C, the B vitamins, calcium and magnesium. Those are the same nutrients that support the health of the immune system (8)(9).
So, in addition to eating a nutrient-rich diet full of vitamins and minerals, the cortisol-lowering effects of meditation may also help strengthen your immune system by reducing the stress response that leads to immune suppression.
6. A Stronger Sense of Compassion Towards Others
Imagine being able to feel sympathetic towards another person, even if they’ve done something you disagreed with or that affected you in a negative way.
Having compassion towards others is beneficial for several reasons.
First of all, your stress response is likely to be much lower if you enter a stressful situation with understanding or sympathy for another person’s actions.
Having compassion can also prevent stressful situations from elevating or even occurring in the first place. In turn, this can help make life’s otherwise challenging predicaments easier to deal with.
In a study published in the Public Library of Science One, brain scans detected that emotions such as loving-kindness and compassion can not only be learned in the same way as any new skill, but that practicing compassion meditation improves the function in the area of the brain responsible for these emotions (10).
7. Better Emotional Regulation
Another benefit of meditation is improved emotional regulation. This means when you’re confronted with a negative situation that would cause reactive response, instead you’re more able to stop, take a breath, slow down, and think of a solution.
Since mindful meditation heavily focuses on bringing awareness to the present moment, having a regular meditation practice may help reduce the negative impact of emotions that result from perceived stressful events, worries, and other little things that may get under your skin.
Studies have shown that mindfulness meditation helps enhance the sensory pathways in the brain that work to control emotion and increase tolerance for discomfort and pain (11).
Imagine being able to enjoy yourself in a traffic jam! You may just experience that if you practice meditation.
8. May Help With Addictive Behaviors
Much more research is needed to determine whether or not meditation is significantly helpful when it comes to addiction.
However, since addictive behaviors are linked to reactive responses (for example, reacting to a painful situation with the use of a numbing substance which can be anything from gambling to shopping to food, alcohol or drugs), meditation may be helpful in controlling the reactive behaviors that can promote addiction.
The scientific benefits of meditation were put to the test when researchers studied its impact as part of a smoking cessation program.
Researchers found that subjects who followed a mindfulness practice through meditation were able to cut down the number of cigarettes they smoked each day and were better able to maintain their results than those who hadn’t practiced any form of meditation (12).
9. Increased Memory and Speech
In addition to emotions, the gray matter in your brain is responsible for your memory, impulse control, and speech.
According to an article published in the Harvard Gazette, regular mindfulness meditation has been shown to create measurable positive changes in the brain’s structure – specifically, the gray matter.
This means that in addition to stress relief, the scientific benefits of meditation may also include lasting improvements to cognitive function (13).
10. Improves Mental Focus
Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve found it impossible to focus, no matter what measures you take?
Usually when we have a hard time gaining focus, it has to do with stress. After all, stress can temporarily impair your ability to think clearly, make rational decisions and concentrate (we’ve all been there, haven’t we?).
Since one of the scientific benefits of meditation is reduced stress – the culprit of poor mental focus – it only makes sense that meditation can help improve mental focus, especially since it promotes positive changes in the brain’s structure that are related back to focus and memory.
[Related: The Simple Brain Fog Cure]
How to Make Meditation Work for You
Now that you understand the scientifically proven benefits of meditation, you may be wondering how you can include this powerful tool into your everyday life.
Meditation is something that can be easily incorporated into your day, in a way that is most convenient and enjoyable for you.
I personally recommend beginning with a 5 minutes a day, twice each day and working your way up to 20 or 30 minutes twice a day from there. All you have to do is find a quiet spot and pay attention to your breath.
Sometimes using a guided meditation is helpful when it comes to emptying thoughts from your mind, especially in the beginning.
If you’d like my step-by-step instructions to make meditating easy, I go into more detail at the bottom of this post.
Yuri Elkaim is one of the world’s most trusted health and fitness experts. A former pro soccer player turned NYT bestselling author of The All-Day Energy Diet and The All-Day Fat Burning Diet, his clear, science-backed advice has transformed the lives of more than 500,000 men and women and he’s on a mission to help 100 million people by 2040. Read his inspiring story, “From Soccer to Bed to No Hair on My Head” that started it all.