If you’re anything like me, you’re probably reading this with 27 other open tabs while inhaling whatever days-old snack happens to be within reach. (I’m a catch!) You may know somewhere in the back of your mind that such a lifestyle is, perhaps, not ideal. Thankfully, science is here to inspire us to maybe be a bit more mindful.
But what even is mindfulness? Picture being fully engaged in a task, aware of your thoughts and feelings, but not obsessed or controlled by them. You’re focused on the present, not ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. Your attitude is open, curious, and non-judgmental. That’s mindfulness. To see where you stand, test yourself with a 15-item questionnaire used by scientists called the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS). Then, get inspired to score higher with the recent research below.
In a study at Brown University, researchers found that those with higher scores for mindfulness were significantly more likely than people with lower scores to have healthy glucose levels. Almost 400 volunteers participated in psychological and physiological tests like glucose tests and the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS). Those with high MAAS scores of 6 or 7 were 35 percent more likely to have healthy glucose levels under 100 milligrams per deciliter than people with low MAAS scores below 4. And this could be why: mindful people are more likely to believe they can change important things in their life. A study from the University of Pennsylvania found that people who are more mindful are less likely to be ashamed when presented with health advice and are therefore more motivated to change. You can thank mindfulness’s emphasis on the present for that since it’s been shown to help reduce negative reactions to emotional moments.
We’ve all mindlessly snacked. Sometimes a bite of Cheetos turns into a bag of Cheetos before we’ve even noticed. The good news: Research published in Obesity magazine suggests that practicing mindfulness—making thoughtful food choices and recognizing when we are hungry, satisfied or full—could improve glucose levels and heart health better than behavioral weight-loss programs alone. At the University of California, San Francisco, 194 adults with obesity were split up between a mindfulness intervention group and a control group over a five-and-a-half month period, with a one-year follow-up. Both had identical diet and exercise guidelines. The mindfulness group learned how to practice awareness of their thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations during eating and exercise—and a year and a half later, that group lost an estimated 4.3 percent of body weight, which was 3.7 pounds more than those in the control group. This confirms another study from Brown University, which found that people with dispositional mindfulness (no meditating required) were less likely to be obese and had less abdominal fat than those who did not show as much of that present-moment awareness. Both of these results were statistically significant, even after adjusting for confounding factors (like age, smoking, socioeconomic status).
You may have heard references to how mindfulness helps with debilitating anxiety. Well now, we’ve got the receipts: an NIH-sponsored clinical trial led by a Georgetown University Medical Center researcher has found objective physiological evidence that mindfulness meditation combats anxiety.
They discovered that anxiety disorder patients had sharply reduced stress hormone and inflammatory responses to a stressful situation after taking a mindfulness meditation course. (Patients who took a non-meditation stress management course had worse results.) The researchers believe mindfulness helps improve resilience to stress by forcing you to focus on the present instead of the traumatizing past or worrisome future. New research from Carnegie Mellon University confirms this thinking. Published in Biological Psychiatry, the study discovered that mindfulness meditation training reduces Interleukin-6, an inflammatory health biomarker that can flare up from stress. And they saw via brain scan that mindfulness fundamentally alters brain connectivity patterns in areas important to attention and executive control.
It’s no surprise then that forward-thinking companies like Google, Aetna, Mayo Clinic and even the United States Marine Corps use mindfulness training to improve workplace results: mindfulness improves focus, the ability to manage stress and how employees work together. Even the British Parliament is getting in on the action and recently launched a mindfulness initiative called "Mindful Nation UK" that leverages mindfulness to improve national health and productivity. Researchers distilled 4,000 scientific papers on mindfulness into a guide recently published in the Journal of Management. Their interdisciplinary findings concluded that mindfulness can stabilize attention in the present moment and those who completed mindfulness training remained vigilant longer on visual and listening tasks. No word yet on whether you can expense your Headspace subscription...
And that’s not all, folks. A new study of almost 400 participants in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine has found a significant association between self-reported everyday mindfulness and better cardiovascular health. Researchers believe that people who are attuned to their of-the-moment feelings are better at handling cravings that lead to cardiovascular risk factors like obesity, smoking, and blood pressure. In the study, 382 participants answered the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS). Those with high MAAS scores had an 83 percent greater prevalence of good cardiovascular health compared to those with relatively low MAAS scores when it came to BMI, physical activity, fasting glucose, and avoiding smoking. So the next time you’re having a stress craving, try meditating instead.
Time to optimize your study game. According to researchers at the UC Santa Barbara, just two weeks of mindfulness training can improve your reading comprehension, working memory capacity, and ability to focus.
Almost 50 undergraduate students were split up into attending two different classes: mindfulness and nutrition. They were tested for verbal reasoning from the GRE (Graduate Record Examination), working memory capacity (WMC), and mind-wandering a week before the classes started and a week after they ended. Unlike the nutrition group, the mindfulness group significantly improved on both the verbal GRE test and the working memory capacity test, and mind-wandered less during testing.
How’s this for a Tylenol alternative? In a randomized, double-blinded study of 78 healthy volunteers, Wake Forest Baptist researchers showed that pain was reduced by over twenty percent after meditation—even after one group was injected with naloxone, which blocks the pain-reducing effects of opioids (the body's main pain-blocking process). The groups who didn’t meditate reported increased pain levels in the experiment. The study suggested two surprising things: meditation works in a unique way to decrease pain and those who have developed a tolerance to opiate-based drugs can use meditation as a non-addictive way to find pain relief.
Mindfulness may also help you to get better zzz’s. A recent clinical trial showed improved sleep from meditation in older adults having trouble sleeping, according to an article published by JAMA Internal Medicine. Researchers from the University of Southern California, Los Angeles recruited 49 elderly people to test out their theory. Half took part in a standardized mindful awareness practice (MAP) and the other half participated in a sleep hygiene education (SHE) intervention, a more structured program focusing on changing poor sleep habits and establishing a bedtime routine. After measuring their Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI), a widely used self-reported questionnaire of sleep disturbances, the scientists found that the mindfulness group had lower disturbance scores compared to the control group and showed improvement in other factors like insomnia, depression, and fatigue. While all of these potential benefits are enticing, there’s still quite a bit of research to be done in the field. In the meantime, why not try meditating for yourself? It might make for some pretty beneficial research.