6 Ways Meditation Helps Health & Fitness

December 13, 2015

Can meditation be one of your most consistent, supportive and important workout buddies? For our writer who discovered meditation 25 years ago, the answer is yes indeed. Read on to find out how you might improve your health and wellbeing when you start to feel the om…

I began meditating shortly after college, when I realized the mild anxiety I lived with daily could no longer be blamed on exams and too much caffeine. To tame my overactive stress response, I started practicing mindfulness meditation. As a graduate student who also worked full time, meditation is what helped me keep it together. And it helped me again when my second child turned two and proceeded to throw tantrums for what seemed like three straight years.
Beyond stress reduction, I’ve discovered that meditation has had an unexpected bonus benefit — the practice brings me out of my head, and down into my body. And when I feel connected with this body of mine, I want to take better care of her. It’s the least I can do in return for all the breathing, heart beating and neuron-firing she does for me all day.
Here then, are six ways I think meditation can lead anyone on the path towards better mental and physical health.

1. Meditation reminds you that moving is awesome

In walking meditation, you consciously focus on the movement your body makes as you take each step along a garden path or the supermarket aisle or the hall in your house. Whether you do the meditation at a regular gate or snail speed, you begin to notice the shift in your weight, the lifting of your knees, the work of your muscles, the role your upper body plays in keeping your balance. This simple activity is the result of a spectacular set of operations involving the brain, spine, nerves, and muscles, as well as millions of years of natural selection. When I translate some of that awe and awareness to Pilates, barre, running, or just giving my kids a piggy back ride, it makes the physical movement more enjoyable, and makes me keep going when I might otherwise have stopped.

2. Meditation helps you stop when it’s time to stop

Before I began meditating, when fitness instructors screamed, “Keep going!,” I kept going, even if I was exhausted or in pain. Meditation helped me become more conscious and respectful of my limits. I’m all for pushing beyond my comfort zone, but I’ve learned it’s me, not my fitness teacher, who really knows where to draw the line.

3. Meditation helps you ignore your thoughts and feelings

Not all of your brilliant thoughts and profound feelings, of course. I’m talking about the repetitive, all-too-familiar ones that stop you from exercising or meditating even though you know you’ll feel better if you do. When I am not meditating, thoughts that it’s too cold outside or I’m too tired to exercise are louder and more tenacious. They aren’t silenced completely when I meditate regularly, but I find them much easier to ignore.

4. Meditation can help you eat more healthfully

I grew up with four siblings, and for some reason, we all ate as if the ample amount of food before us was about to disappear. Second helpings were automatic, never mind whether we were hungry or not. It took me many years to slow down, taste my meals more mindfully, and stop eating before I felt full. These days, I try to take a moment between bites, notice the flavor of my food, and enjoy the company I’m eating with. When I eat this way, I find I hanker for healthful foods more often and keep my rare indulgences rare.

5. Meditation helps you let go of perfectionism

During meditation, you can opt to focus on the breath coming in and out at your nose or through the rising and falling of your belly. I almost always choose to focus on my belly. I’ve had two children. My abs are not in anyway “killer” and sometimes I feel crummy about that. But when I let my belly rise and fall during meditation, without holding it in as we women so often do, I appreciate it as the first home for my babies and the soft spot my two boys still like to lay their heads when we’re snuggling on the couch. That’s not to say I don’t care about how I look. I do. But with the help of meditation and belly breathing, I now strive towards being fit, without struggling for abs of steel.

6. A few minutes of meditation does a body good

The more stressed and time-pressed I feel, the more important it is for me to fit in meditation. But there are times when work deadlines, end-of-day exhaustion, and kids who need something every nanosecond make it tough for me to meditate. On those days, I try very hard to close my eyes and follow my breath for at least a minute or two. Breathing in, breathing out. It’s a healthful cycle that begets more healthful choices moment by moment. Mindfulness inspires me to park further from the store, walk when it’s an option, do a wall sit while waiting for my kids’ school bus. All these moments add up to a healthier me.
Want to know more?
In you’re interested in finding out more about mindfulness meditation, pick up any book by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction and the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Or check out this straightforward introduction: What Is Mindfulness? from the University of California, Berkeley.
Image credit: Original lotus illustration by Olivia Campbell