As you get older, you might begin to experience age-related health issues — such as chronic pain and poor sleep -- or emotional pain like grief and loneliness. Research points to a proven way to address these health concerns: meditation, which can help ease physical and emotional distress.
Mental Health Benefits
Not only does meditation help reduce stress, it can relieve anxiety and depression, growing research shows. For instance, the Society for Integrative Oncology (SIO) recommends meditation as part of a multidisciplinary approach to decrease anxiety and improve quality of life in cancer patients. And the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) highlights multiple research studies showing the positive effects of meditation on both mental and physical health.
Older adults face unique stressors, such as watching your social support network shrink as you lose loved ones and experiencing grief and loneliness more.
Regular meditation improves memory, focus, attention and concentration. Why? Because meditation is all about awareness — understanding where your mind is now, noticing when it wanders and knowing how to refocus your attention. This can be a lifesaver in social situations when you experience a “senior moment” during a conversation. Your mind might wander, but meditation helps you recognize this and refocus back to the present moment.
Meditation also can offset the known risk factors for developing dementia, including chronic stress, anxiety and depression. Try finding “mental fitness moments” throughout the day to work your mind, just like exercise works your body. Meditating helps build, restore and strengthen neural pathways.
Physical Health Benefits
Research also supports meditation’s positive effects on physical health. For example, a 2016 study (funded in part by NCCIH) showed that mindfulness meditation alleviates pain. And the same SIO study cited above found that, in additional to mental health benefits, meditation also reduces chronic pain.
Reduces stress response. When stress goes unmanaged, your body is constantly running with an increased heart rate, increased blood pressure and higher rates of adrenaline and cortisol. If you don't give your body time to recover, these stress hormones can build up and cause adverse health effects.
Activates relaxation response. When you reduce your stress response, your mind and body find calm. This helps a relaxation response to kick in; heart rate and blood pressure decrease, as do adrenaline and cortisol levels.
Improves sleep. Older adults typically see their sleep patterns interrupted, whether that’s waking more frequently throughout the night, going to bed earlier or rising earlier. Meditation helps promote restorative sleep.
Increases awareness, which could prevent injuries. Sometimes seniors aren’t paying attention to their environment and trip over something they didn't notice. This could lead to a broken bone, fractured hip or other health problems.
Works well for people with limited mobility. Moving meditations — such as yoga and tai chi—focus on “meeting your body where it's at” with gentle movements. This can enhance flexibility and increase mobility. If you’re frustrated that you’re not able to do certain activities (due to surgery, illness, arthritis or other issues), meditation offers a great way to enhance that mind-body connection. Plus, it encourages self-acceptance and self-compassion.
Meditation is about the present moment, focus and awareness. But there are a few misconceptions about meditation.
You don’t need to meditate in a seated position with your legs crossed. Just find a comfortable position, whether that's sitting in a chair, lying on the couch or standing.
Don’t expect to have your thoughts “turned off.” Meditation is about recognizing thoughts as they pop up and trying to bring your focus and attention back — to your breathing, your body or your surroundings.
There is no “best” time to meditate. Some people like the morning, while others prefer the afternoon or evening.
A one-size-fits-all meditation practice does not exist. Do what works best for you.
How To Start Meditating
As you begin meditating, keep these tips in mind:
Start with small increments of time (such as a one-minute breathing exercise) and build up from there.
Practice deep breathing, focusing on a favorite song or mindful walking.
For community resources, you might find a yoga studio, senior center or YMCA that offers meditation classes.
Try the free Insight Timer app, which offers thousands of meditations with a variety of teachers.
The easiest, most accessible, resource is often just being in a quiet place at home. Try being in nature outside or playing soothing music inside.
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