More often than not, you hear "mindfulness" ahead of "meditation," a practice in which people train to be more aware of their every moment. Mindfulness meditation has been linked to lower emotional and chemical stress levels; the ability to ease depression and anxiety; and reduced arthritis pain, asthma, risk of Alzheimer’s, and cardiovascular disease. But with respect to that last one, just being mindful may be enough to reap heart-healthy benefits.
A new study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine found a significant association between something called dispositional mindfulness and improved scores on four of the seven indicators of cardiovascular health. According to the American Heart Association, those indicators relate to blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, height, weight, and waist circumference, plus eating and exercise habits. This is the first study to ever consider these factors in regards to heart health.
“Mostly [mindfulness has] been looked at for mental health and pain management, but increasingly they are being looked at for cardiovascular risk factors such as obesity, smoking, and blood pressure,” said Dr. Eric Loucks, lead study author and assistant professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health at Brown University, in a press release.
Loucks and his team asked 382 participants to rate on a six-point scale, ranging from "almost always" to "almost never," 15 statements from the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS), including “I find it difficult to stay focused on what’s happening in the present” and “I tend not to notice feelings of physical tension or discomfort until they really grab my attention.” While doing this, participants also took heart-related tests to gauge the aforementioned indicators.
The results? Participants who scored high on the MAAS had an 83 percent greater prevalence of cardiovascular health compared to those who scored lower. There were especially major differences when factoring for body mass index, physical activity, glucose, and smoking. Loucks suggested being more mindful of, and managing, the various cravings that undermine health, from sugary foods to cigarettes, as leading to improved cardiovascular health. Loucks’ next steps are to test whether improving mindfulness can increase cardiovascular health indicators and if the effects are long lasting.
What’s really cool about mindfulness is that it can be done simply, everyday. It doesn’t require seminars, or long hours, or yoga even (though that’s a super-healthy option to consider). Mindfulness is whatever you want it to be, whatever way works best for you. It’s not one-size fits all, but rather it can be an individualized approach based on, say, personality, so that people feel comfortable with their practice.
Dr. Ann S. Williams, research assistant professor at Frances Payne Bolton’s School of Nursing, says that drinking tea is a very simple way to practice mindfulness. “A person sipping tea in the usual way may be aware of holding the cup, smelling the aroma before the first sip, and the taste of the first sip,” she said. “The experience of drinking the rest of the tea may blend into one single experience that has to do with noticing the decreasing amount of tea in the cup.”
Not your, ahem, cup of tea? Consider apps like Calm and Headspace. These apps allow users to follow guided meditations for however long they want, be it five or 10 minutes, or more. Headspace in particular challenges users to take 10 minutes each day in order to unlock additional meditations that benefit everything from anxiety to sleep.
Source: Loucks E, Britton W, Howe C, Eaton C, Buka S. Positive Associations of Dispositional Mindfulness with Cardiovascular Health: the New England Family Study. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine. 2014.