By Brian Morris, MD
If I told you that a recent study showed that performing one specific activity each day would reduce your risk of dying by 48%, would you give it a try? I’m guessing your answer is probably “yes.” This activity is something that is so simple and yet is vitally important to your health. In previous habits, I discussed the importance of physical activity, aerobic exercise, weight training, and stretching. In this habit, I’ll be explaining the importance of moving less. Yes, less. Human bodies are peculiar things in that it’s beneficial to both to move more and to move less. Getting sufficient physical activity helps to keep your body “in shape.” However, you also need short periods of time each day for your mind to take a break. This is time for you to turn off your brain and allow it to recharge.
The brain is a powerful organ that can process loads of information and formulate spectacular ideas. However, for the mind to work optimally, it needs short breaks; periods of time where it can reboot and restore itself to optimal functioning. If you don’t give your mind these short breaks, stress will build up within you and eventually result in significant health problems. Stress weakens your immune system and increases the likelihood that illness will develop in the areas of your body where you already have a health vulnerability. Thus, this can affect your intestinal system, cardiovascular system, musculoskeletal system, or other parts of your body. It is critically important to take care of your mind and ensure that you’re able to effectively handle stress before it handles you.
Each night, I charge my smartphone so that it has a full battery when I wake up in the morning. Well, one day I fell asleep and forgot to charge my phone and I woke in the morning to find that I was starting my day with a phone with a dead battery.
I realized this is a good analogy for life. You need to use your mind and body throughout the day. However, if you don’t recharge your “batteries,” eventually you’ll wake up one morning with a “dead battery.” This can be experienced as just a lack of energy or as a potentially serious health problem.
One of the best ways to recharge your batteries is meditation. Meditation is a period of time each day when you turn off your conscious thoughts and allow your mind to take a short break and recharge. It’s difficult to not have a conscious thought, so one of the most effective ways to meditate is to focus on something. It can be your breath, a body movement, or a mantra (a word or phrase on which you focus).
Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School has published studies where he showed that one of the most effective meditative practices is to find a word or phrase that holds deep meaning to the meditator. It could be the name of someone special, a religious passage, or anything that holds special meaning for you. Dr. Benson found that people get better results from meditation by focusing on a word or phrase that holds personal meaning rather than focusing on a generic word such as peace or love.
The next step is to find a quiet place to sit down where you’ll be free of distractions and noise. With eyes either open or closed, repeat your focus word or phrase either out loud or to yourself. You will probably find that after about twenty seconds, thoughts will enter your mind (such as, “Why am I doing nothing right now?”). When this happens, let those thoughts go and gently return to your focus word or phrase.
Meditating is sort of like driving a car. As you’re driving, the car might shift a bit to the right or left in your lane. When this happens, you gently turn the steering wheel to keep the car going straight. Likewise, your goal is to keep your mind on your focus word or phrase. When your mind starts to wander and think about other things, passively let the thought go and return to your focus word or phrase. This is a process of training your mind to stay focused without conscious thought. Meditation is a true vacation for the mind.
Turning off your conscious mind allows for the healing of your mind and body. Some call this meditation. Some calls this simple relaxation. Dr. Benson calls it The Relaxation Response. No matter what it is called, it is a rewarding process that makes every other minute of the day that much better.
For new meditators, I usually recommend starting with two minutes a day. Once you have been able to consistently meditate for two minutes a day, try to increase the sessions to a five minute session each day. Once you get more comfortable with meditation, you can gradually increase the duration of your sessions with an ultimate goal of twenty minutes per day. Don’t worry if this is difficult for you as meditation is one of the most challenging habits for a healthy life. Be patient with yourself and stick with it even if your meditation sessions are brief.
A recent study detailed the health benefits of meditation and those benefits were impressive. In this study, patients were randomized to either meditation on a consistent basis or attending a health education course. The researchers found that after five years, the patients who meditated had a 48% lower risk of death, heart attack, and stroke when compared to those who attended the health education classes. That’s a staggering number. If a medication could give people that much benefit, it would likely become one of the biggest selling pharmaceutical products of all-time. Happily, you can achieve this benefit from a basic habit that can be practiced every day without the need for a prescription or expensive equipment.
What about other relaxation techniques such as yoga, Pilates, biofeedback, or other techniques? Each of these can be helpful as well. The key is to find a relaxation technique where you practice focusing your attention on a word, phrase, or movement for a period of time and then passively let your thoughts go when thoughts arise in your mind. Many people are amazed by how much better they feel when they start practicing the discipline of meditation.
If you’ve never meditated before, try it for just two minutes a day. The best way to start is to pick a short word or phrase with which you connect on a positive, personal level. Sit in a comfortable chair and slowly repeat the word or phrase to yourself for two minutes. When other thoughts try to intrude into your mind (which usually happens after about twenty seconds), let those thoughts go and then return to the repetition. This simple technique can be extremely healing.