Relaxing is easier said than done for most of us, but it might just be the key to a healthy heart and soul. When we are under stress, our natural alarm system is turned on and we pump out adrenaline, which results in quicker breathing, a fast heart rate, and a rise in blood pressure. This response, over a prolonged period of time, can result in serious health problems. Mindfulness decreases cortisol levels in the body; this hormone is associated with sugar cravings and overeating. Mindfulness has been defined as, “the practice of purposely focusing your attention on the present moment – and accepting it without judgment.”
Research done at Brown University and published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine in late 2014 found that “dispositional mindfulness” improved scored on four of the seven indicators of heart health. For this study, 382 participants were asked to rate 15 statements from the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS) on a six-point scale. Examples of the statements include “I forget a person’s name almost as soon as I’ve been told it for the first time,” “I rush through activities without being really attentive to them,” and “I drive places on automatic pilot and then wonder why I went there.” The individuals who scored high on the MAAS had an 83% higher prevalence of cardiovascular health compared to those who scored lower on the scale. People with low scores struggled more with body mass index, physical activity, glucose, and smoking.
Meditation is the practice of using deep breathing, quiet contemplation, or focus on an inanimate object to help with the process of releasing stress. Meditation does not have to involve sitting in a cross-legged position and lighting candles. Some people meditate by listening to music and trying to clear their mind while they walk or do yoga. Tai chi is considered “moving meditation,” whereas transcendental meditation is done seated with your eyes closed for two 20-minute sessions daily. Meditation has been shown to help increase mindfulness and help reduce emotional eating.
Simple mindfulness tips
- Take a few minutes to simply focus on your breathing. Some people do breathing exercises which consists of counting the seconds (ie, 4 seconds of inhalation, 7 seconds of holding breath, then 8 seconds of exhaling). It is important to breathe in through your nose and feel your abdomen expanding and then breathe out through your mouth and feel your abdomen contracting.
- Taking a moment to think about all of your senses — what are you seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling — at this moment?
- Focus on each part of your body from your feet to the top of your head – many of us are so busy that we are not even aware of how we are feeling physically.
- Watch nature or an animal with relaxed attention.
- Hold a stone or another object and really focus on it alone – is it smooth or rough, cold or warm?
- When you listen to music, focus all of your attention on it.
- Pay attention to your emotions and allow yourself to experience them in the present moment. Resist judging your emotions and let them go.
References and recommended readings
Free Guided Meditations from the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center
Benefits of mindfulness. Helpguide.org website. http://www.helpguide.org/harvard/benefits-of-mindfulness.htm. Accessed August 20, 2015.
Castillo S. Mindfulness makes a huge difference in heart health; improves self-awareness, reduces cravings. Medical Daily website. http://www.medicaldaily.com/mindfulness-makes-huge-difference-heart-health-improves-self-awareness-reduces-cravings-307963. Published October 25, 2014. Accessed August 20, 2015.
Day-to-day experiences. University of Pennsylvania website. http://www.positivepsychology.org/sites/ppc.sas.upenn.edu/files/mindfulnessscale.pdf. Accessed August 20, 2015.
Hall A. When it comes to matters of the heart, mindfulness can help. Huffington Post website. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/24/mindfulness-better-heart-cardiovascular-health_n_6043554.html. Published October 24, 2015. Accessed August 20, 2015.
Meditation and heart health. American Heart Association website. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/More/MyHeartandStrokeNews/Meditation-and-Heart-Disease-Stroke_UCM_452930_Article.jsp. Updated May 27, 2014. Accessed August 20, 2015.
Mindful Meditations by UCLA https://itunes.apple.com/us/itunes-u/mindful-meditations/id434136047?mt=10
Source: Nutrition 411 (Contributed by Elaine Hinzey RDN, LD/N) and modified by Erica Leon, RDN
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Erica Leon is a Registered Dietitian and practices from a Health at Every Size (HAES®) lens. She is certified as an eating disorder specialist and is passionate about helping women at midlife, menopause and beyond to make peace with food and body image.
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