The Health Benefits of Meditation

 
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The final area of wellness that I will address here that is essential to living a long, healthy, happy life of vitality is developing and using a consistent meditation practice. Just as a reminder, the foundations of physical wellness that I have addressed so far are sleep, nutrition, and exercise/movement. The foundations of mental wellness that I have addressed here are the benefits of a strong social support, core relationships, remaining open-minded and curious, and the willingness to take on challenges and life-long learning.

Meditation offers health benefits that impact mind and body. Meditation addresses the stress response allowing us to access the relaxation response which creates increased mental wellness, creative expansion while releasing uncomfortable and non-useful thoughts and emotions.

Meditation is certainly not something new that I have talked about here! In fact, I’ve mentioned it over and over (as it is one of the primary ways that I keep myself sane) because I’ve see the direct impact that it can have on a variety of struggles for those that I work with, including anxiety, emotional eating, eating disorders, panic attacks, depression and limiting thoughts and beliefs—which directly impact the ability to take action. Meditation is one of the core practices that I have studied both in relation to my yoga studies along with all of the emerging research within the therapy, mental health and wellness world—and all of the benefits really are pretty vast and astounding.

When you are able to add in even just a small amount of meditation daily, you can have a tremendous return on your time investment in the way of health and wellness benefits. As little as five minutes a day can impact stress hormones, neurotransmitter production and circadian rhythms. Twelve minutes a day has shown an even greater impact such as improving telomere length of neurons in the brain (which indicates a younger brain!) increasing focus and concentration and decreased cognitive decline. Not to mention that meditation improves your self-awareness and reduces emotional reactivity which is one of the most valuable ways to improve the quality of your life on a daily basis.

There is often a lot of confusion about meditation. People tell me all the time, “I can’t meditate, I can’t get my mind to be quiet.” This is the primary misconception of meditation. The fact is that meditation is not about turning off your thoughts and sitting in perfect silence. I can tell you from experience that this is not what happens, and definitely not when you are just beginning the practice. Now maybe a long-long time meditator can silence their mind for long periods of time, but most of us have A LOT of thoughts constantly running through our minds. So let’s say that you generally have 100 thoughts a minute, and through a concentration and meditation practice you have 60. That will still feel like A LOT of thoughts, but it is still an improvement! With more practice maybe you’ll have 45 thoughts a minute, and with more 30, but again, that may still feel like a pretty active mind.

The purpose is not to silence your thoughts, the purpose is to distance yourself from the thoughts, to not be so reactive to the constant stream of emotionally provoking thoughts which may only cause stress and tension. In meditation you learn how to witness your thoughts rather than respond to them. This is the true practice, to recognize that you are not your thoughts and that they do not define you. Traditionally meditation is done in a seated posture and connecting with a single point of focus. This single point of focus could be your breath, a word or phrase, an image, a candle flame, or an image you create in your mind such as a sphere of light.

Mindfulness meditation is about being aware of all external and internal potential distractions, such as sounds, body sensations, thoughts and emotions and the mindfulness process invites you to simply notice them. You can even label them for exactly what they are. Here’s an example, as you sit and observe your internal and external space, if you hear the sound of a car, plane, ticking clock or someone talking, you simply label it as a sound rather than letting your mind consider the story of the sound. When you get into the story of the sound you will most likely evoke emotions and then thoughts, such as “ugg, that’s so annoying, I’m trying to meditate and that car keeps honking it’s horn.” That’s how we typically address annoyances in life, however mindfulness invites you see the honking just a sound, no thoughts or emotions necessary. Do you see how this may help improve your response to other potential annoyances in your life?

Meditation is allowing your mind to fully focus on one thing, and when you find you are distracted, you bring your focus back to that single point of awareness—that one thing. It really doesn’t matter so much what your point of focus is so long as you make a consistent effort to maintain it. Not judging your experience or getting involved in your emotions is helpful as well.

The most important element in order to reap the benefits of the practice is to be consistent. Daily is ideal, and even 1-15 minutes is great. If daily does not feel doable quite yet, you might start with 3 days a week and increase as you are ready. I am planning to roll out some support for those interested in a supportive community of beginning/skeptical/interested meditators in the fall! Stay tuned for updates! If you find you’d like some support getting started now, feel free to reach out. No matter how you start, try not to get caught up in the details, it is the experience and practice that matters most, not that you have the right chair, lighting, props or anything else!

If you have been implementing these eight areas of wellness that help support a long, healthy and happy life I’d love to hear how they are working for you!

The Health Benefits of Taking on New Challenges

 
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Taking on new challenges and remaining open to life-long learning is yet another way to remain healthy and vital throughout your lifespan. While taking on new challenges when you are out of school, such as starting a new job, training, or moving into a promotion may feel exciting, what about taking on a new challenge after your career is well established and you are settled into the routine of your life?

Last week we looked at the health benefits of being curious and open-minded throughout your life, which is also about life-long personal growth and learning. Taking on new challenges may have a similar feel, however, one of the main elements of taking on a new challenge is that it requires that you confront some of your personal fears. Let’s say you take on the challenge of learning a new instrument, a fear might be, “what if I am no good at it” or “what if it’s too hard” and so on. These fear-based thoughts will prevent you from taking action and enriching your life. Taking on a new challenge and continued learning could be so many different things. It could be moving to a new home or city, learning to rock climb, learning a new language, instrument or skill.

Whatever challenge you choose, the most important aspect of allowing yourself to grow is both that you do it at all and how you approach it. Learning to combat the fear-based negative thoughts will be the first challenge you will have to address. So, let’s look at how to approach those thoughts as a part of this vitality and wellbeing creating process.

Negative, fear-based thoughts are a pattern of conditioning that often begin quite young. You may have battled many thoughts that hold you back in life, or you may be a victim to them right this very moment. Either way, the first step is always awareness. When you notice that these thoughts in fact exist and are having an impact on your life, this will help you make a choice on how to respond to them. The second step is recognizing that these thoughts are just thoughts. These thoughts are not you and they do not define you. Know that you do not have to believe everything you think.

Once you have these first two steps underway, the third step is knowing what to do with the thought. In this step you can ask yourself, “is this a true thought?” Let’s use the example of a fear thought based on your desire to learn a new instrument: “what if it’s too hard?” Now, is this a true thought? Well no it’s not because you haven’t even tried yet. Then, ask yourself, “is this a useful thought?” With this same example of learning a new instrument, no it’s not useful. This thought is not helping you move in the direction of taking on a new challenge that can open you up to living a life of vitality and wellbeing. Do you see how this one, maybe even seemingly reasonable, thought is limiting your ability to take action on learning a new instrument (or any other challenge?) I can guarantee you that these thoughts are not true and most certainly are not useful.

Once you’ve been able to determine this, you can take action on creating a reality based thought, something like this, “although I have some fears about not being good at a new instrument, I am going to choose to try, practice and enjoy the process of learning.” This is called reframing. Reframing allows you to live in a space of reality and empowerment rather than in a space of undetermined fear and placing limits on your life because of these fears.

So, what would you like to learn? What’s a new challenge you’d like to take on no matter what stage of life you may be? Today is just the right day to take action. When you challenge yourself, you build up your self-esteem and your self-worth. When you learn and grow, you continue to build a life for yourself that you are excited to live. Allow yourself this opportunity to expand. This keeps your brain active and reduces stress, a perfect combination for longevity and vitality! Take on a new challenge and expand your knowledge and your personal power beginning today.

Not sure what challenge and new learning to take on? Here are some ideas on where to spark your interest:

-       Do challenging word and number puzzles

-       Take or audit a class that interests you at a local community college

-       Write down five areas that interest you that are outside of your area of career/work

-       Research books and/or classes about those topics

-       Read one book on this topic, and then another and another

-       Sign up for a class on this topic

-       Learn a new language

-       Learn to play an instrument

-       Learn to knit

-       Take an art class

-       Take a workshop

-       Join a book club

-       Go to a museum

-       Join a community sports league

- Take a new class at a gym/yoga studio/recreation center

When you begin the process, be sure to check in with and challenge any limiting thoughts and beliefs that hold you back. Notice the impact on your life when you allow yourself this freedom to live a life of progression and growth for years to come.

The Health Benefits of Moving Your Body

 
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Having a healthy balance between activity and rest is essential to living a long, healthy life of vitality. Over the past several blog posts I’ve been outlining a variety of areas of wellness necessary to live well, feel well and be well on all levels. The area of movement and exercise is one that is commonly focused on in the wellness world, but often one that is difficult to create a routine around that sticks for the long term.

Our bodies are designed to move. Haven’t you heard that sitting is the new smoking? Yikes, that makes sitting sound super unhealthy! There’s a ton of information out there about the optimal type and amount of exercise and movement that we need. However, really the best kind of movement is movement you actually enjoy doing and the best amount of time is how much time will realistically fit into your current schedule—without creating any additional stress.

Beyond identifying what you like to—and are willing to do—and the realistic amount of time you can commit to it within your schedule, the next most important aspect of movement and exercise is consistency. If you only sporadically move your body, you will not receive the same level of long-term benefits that come along with consistent exercise. These benefits are well researched, vast and most impressive. Some of the benefits of movement and exercise include improved sleep, increased energy, reduced cholesterol, reduced blood pressure, reduced cognitive decline, increased mobility throughout your lifespan, increased mood stabilization, and reduced stress levels. These are all pretty convincing reasons to get off the couch and get moving. 

I find the most difficult part of being consistent is that I don’t ever really feel like exercising. Now, if you suggest taking a restorative yoga class, to that I say, yes please! Doing thirty minutes on the elliptical machine and 15 minutes of strength training, not quite as exciting to me. While yoga can absolutely serve as exercise (and so much more!) for me, it’s more of a relaxation practice, and I find that to get in exercise I personally need to more traditional movement. To shake the low motivation I have to remind myself that I am most likely never gonna feel like it (at least not very often.) So, to stay motivated, I find it is super helpful to focus on the benefits, including how I feel after I complete a workout. I want to be healthy—health and vitality are two of my personal values—so this means I need to exercise. I have to plan it and prepare for it so I don’t talk myself out of it. When I do move my body, I feel accomplished, stronger and more emotionally balanced. Focusing on those super valuable positives helps me to get off the couch and to the gym.

If you are struggling to get exercise into your routine, I suggest that you keep an exercise log. First, plan out what days you will exercise, what form of movement you will do, and for how long you will do the exercises directly onto your calendar. If you put it into your mindset by writing it out and planning ahead of time, you are far more likely to make it happen. Then, keep a log of how you feel before you exercise, how you feel after you exercise, and what motivated you to do if you didn’t feel like. When you reflect on this log it will serve as a helpful reminder of why you are choosing your health and vitality over a temporary feeling of laziness—or even dread.

If you are just not a gym person, the most effective way to start the process of moving is finding a form of movement that you really enjoy. (You can catch an older blog on 5 ways to get more movement without the gym here!) This could be dancing, joining a community sports team, walking, yoga, pilates, signing up for a community 5k and training for it (with a friend makes it even better!), swim, hike, taking a dance class… Finding something you enjoy and doing it along with a buddy can make it something you actually look forward to doing regularly! 

When you commit to regular movement and exercise you are committing to your health and wellbeing and creating a greater life of longevity and vitality. To begin to make it happen for you, first identify what movement you actually enjoy, then the amount of time you can dedicate to doing it. Create your exercise log and plan for exactly when you will do it. Begin using these tools and see the impact moving your body can have on your life for the better beginning today!