One of the most effective ways to enhance your longevity and healthspan is something you can start right this second. It’s completely free, accessible to everyone, and doesn't require a huge time commitment — just you and your mind. Yes, we’re talking about meditation.
Between 200 and 500 million people globally have tried meditation. In the past 10 years, the number of U.S. adults who practice meditation has tripled. It’s clearly catching on, but there are still a lot of misconceptions around the practice that might be holding you back from trying it.
When we hear the word ‘meditation,’ many people imagine sitting cross legged with their eyes closed, trying to completely quiet their mind. The truth is that meditation doesn’t need to look or feel a certain way.
“Meditation practices are methods of exploring the mind — one’s thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and consciousness itself,” says Dr. Sue Smalley, Ph.D., founder of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center and co-author of Fully Present: The Science, Art and Practice of Mindfulness. “They all share an element of bringing attention to the present moment. They may be movement-based practices — like yoga or walking — or practices of being still. They may involve an object of focused attention — for example, the breath, or a word, or sound — or they may involve resting in an open curiosity to the natural flow of life.”
In all forms of meditation, the goal is to actively bring awareness to how you’re feeling, what you’re experiencing, and how it’s affecting you. “Meditation is a non-judgmental form of awareness,” says Lifeforce Physician Dr. Leah Johansen, MD, ABFM. “Awareness isn’t something you do for 10 minutes. It’s your life. If you can create these practices in your everyday, that is the key.”
The Mind-Body Benefits of Meditation
With this key, you’re unlocking incredible benefits for your body and mind. “Your mind is the computer system that will set the tone for your body,” says Dr. Johansen. “It’s a fundamental part of your nervous system affecting every organ and system in the body, including your immune system, hormones, and cardiovascular system, to name a few.”
Studying the connection between mindfulness and healthspan is top of mind for many experts. “Over the last several decades the research on meditation has expanded greatly in both number of studies and the topics that have been investigated — from health issues like high blood pressure and heart disease, emotional states like anxiety and depression, to a very broad range of outcomes including physical, emotional, and cognitive states to relationships and actions toward others,” says Dr. Smalley, who is also the Chair of the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute.
Here are a few of the top science-backed benefits, body and mind:
1. Lowers Blood Pressure
A study presented by the American Heart Association found that people who participated in a mindfulness program had an average drop of 5.9 mm Hg in systolic blood pressure, compared to a 1.4 mm Hg reduction in those who did not participate. Additional research suggests that meditation may help decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and diabetes.
2. Improves Sleep
High-quality sleep is essential for healthspan and longevity. Research shows that meditation may significantly improve sleep quality and reduce symptoms of insomnia and fatigue.
3. Reduces Cognitive Decline
Older adults who practiced 10 minutes of mindfulness a day showed significant improvements in cognitive function and task performance, according to a study in the journal Mindfulness.
4. Impacts Immunity and Inflammation
A study in Biological Psychiatry found that meditation helped reduce levels of Interleukin-6, an inflammatory biomarker, in high-stress adults. “Meditation-based practices are beneficial to boosting the immune response and reducing inflammation, two components known to influence health and longevity and to be impacted in a negative way by chronic stress,” says Dr. Smalley.
5. Regulates Stress Response
Speaking of stress, studies show that meditation can help lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Additionally, research shows that people who practice meditation are less likely to react with negative thoughts or unhelpful emotional reactions in times of stress.
“Meditation may create a different relationship with stressful events,” explains Dr. Smalley. “Rather than feeling a stressful event as overwhelming, there may be a greater ability to be with whatever the stressful experience is. It doesn’t mean you won’t feel sad, grieve, have fear, or whatever emotion might arise from a stressful or painful event, but that it can be experienced without adding layers of fear, sadness, or suffering on top of it.”
6. Improves Gene Expression
Regulating stress is crucial for longevity because “chronic stress is known to impact gene expression in ways that are not beneficial to health,” says Dr. Smalley. “Early studies of meditation indicate that it can have the opposite effect — turning on and off genes in a way that is beneficial to health.”
Meditation may also impact gene expression by optimizing telomeres. “Telomeres are found at the ends of chromosomes like the plastic tips are found on the ends of shoelaces. With age and excessive stress, the telomeres shorten — much like shoestring tips might fray with use, making it harder to thread a shoe,” says Dr. Smalley. “Telomere shortening leads to poor cell division and ultimately cell death.”
Studies have shown that meditation is correlated with longer telomeres and increased levels of an enzyme (telomerase) needed for telomere length. “This early data points to meditation as a protective practice to counter some of the effects of aging on the body,” says Dr. Smalley.
5 Simple Tips to Get Started with Meditation
Now that we know why meditation is so beneficial, let’s talk about how to put it into practice. The first thing to know is that anyone can meditate, and you can do it anywhere at any time. “You can be on a walk, on a bus, even in a meeting,” says Dr. Johansen. “You can do it in every moment. Don’t overcomplicate it.” Here’s how to keep it simple:
1. Check in With Yourself
Dr. Johansen suggests regularly being in conversation with yourself throughout the day. Take a minute to check in and bring awareness to the present moment. Ask yourself things like: ‘What is my body experiencing? How am I feeling? What do I need to feel better? What emotions are coming up for me? How can I feel more joyful?’ Then give yourself space to listen.
“You already have the answers within you. Meditation simply gets you in touch with yourself,” says Dr. Johansen. “If you’re coming up blank, sit with that and keep digging. Oftentimes, we are so disconnected to how we’re feeling because we are trying to hide an emotional response. Allow yourself to be objective about what you are experiencing without judgment.”
2. Tune Into Your Breath
“Your breath is the easiest way to get reconnected to yourself,” says Dr. Johansen. When you need a moment of grounding, pay close attention to how your breath flows through you. “Feel your lungs expand, feel your breath move through your arms, legs, and abdomen.”
Dr. Johansen also suggests practicing belly breathing. To start, lay down and put a book on your belly so you can watch it expand with your breath. You can also put a hand on your stomach. Focus on taking deep breaths that originate from your belly, not your shoulders.
3. Try Different Types
There are many forms of meditation — from movement practices like yoga and walking, to mantras, visualization, breathwork, and even activities you love such as painting and gardening. “Try different forms until you find the one that fits best for you,” suggests Dr. Smalley. “But also be open to trying new forms over time because as you continuously change, so may your meditation practice.” As a jumping off point, Dr. Smalley suggests trying different apps, reading books about meditation, or looking up a local meditation practice group if you want a more community-based activity. “If it doesn’t feel right, keep exploring.”
4. Notice Your Thoughts Without Judgment
There is often a misconception that meditation is about emptying the mind, and you’re not ‘doing it right’ if your mind is racing. Dr. Smalley suggests reframing this idea. Instead of wishing away your thoughts, she says, “notice them with kindness and curiosity, not self-criticism or judgment.” Then, gently bring your attention back to the present moment by tuning into your breath or noticing sensations within you.
5. Make It Joyful
Put most simply, “Meditation allows you to slow down and relax more so you can come back to your natural state of joy and happiness,” says Dr. Johansen. Let the practice be enjoyable and bring a smile to your face. “Meditation will help you have more compassion for yourself. If we can be gentle with ourselves and each other, the world will be a gentler place.”
What are your favorite forms of meditation? Reach out to us on social at @golifeforce to share with us!
This article was medically reviewed by:
Vinita Tandon, MD, ABIM Board Certified in Endocrinology and Metabolism
Leah Johansen, MD, Board Certified Family Practice Doctor, Institute for Functional Medicine Certified Practitioner