While there is no underestimating the importance of following a nutritious, healthy diet and getting plenty of exercise, mindfulness and meditation can also play an important role in supporting a healthy heart and cardiovascular system. Here’s some insight into what these practices are and how they help lower heart disease and SCA risks.
We Live High-Stress Lives
Over the decades, modern life has become busier and busier, with the lines between work, family and leisure becoming blurred. We’re trying to juggle everything all the time, and it’s easy to start paying the price with our health – eating fast food because we’re in a rush, working into the early hours of the morning for days and weeks on end, sleeping poorly, and burning the candle at both ends. And I’m sure I speak for us all when I say the events of 2020 pushed us all to the edge in terms of stress levels.
When we’re stressed, our body releases cortisol – a hormone that prepares us to fight or flight. It’s an important process that temporarily affects almost every system and process in the body, increasing blood sugar levels for energy, increasing blood pressure to power our muscles to run away or fight back, increasing our heart rate to ready the body for rapid responses to threats, stopping or slowing digestion, and putting your systems on high alert.
Of course, this is a good reaction when we are facing a threat – but when stress becomes a way of life, it becomes a dangerous problem. High cortisol levels can trigger multiple health problems, from weight gain and digestive issues to sleep problems, anxiety, depression and memory impairment. It is also very bad for your heart, increasing your risk of heart disease and stroke.
How Meditation and Mindfulness Practices Can Help
Meditation is the process of sitting quietly in a relaxed, peaceful environment, focusing on your breath, a candle flame or a simple object for a period of time. Mindfulness practises are exercises that include elements of meditation, like yoga or Tai Chi. In both practices, the goal is to keep the mind clear and focussed, away from distractions, calming your mind and body.
The main benefit of meditation and mindfulness practices is the ability to raise your heart rate variability (HRV), or the speed at which your heart can adjust intervals between heartbeats. Research has shown that low HRV is associated with 32%-45% increased risk of heart attack, stroke and SCA in people without any previously known cardiovascular disease. Essentially, a high HRV means a healthier heart. One study showed that people who performed just 5 minutes of meditation daily were able to improve their HRV compared to those who did not meditate.
Other benefits of meditation include introducing healthier ways to manage stress (thereby lowering cortisol levels), improved quality and length of sleep, lowering blood pressure, decreasing negative emotions, increasing patience and tolerance, building greater self-awareness, and managing symptoms of several health conditions.
How to Meditate or Practice Mindfulness
The most important thing to remember is that there is a meditation or mindfulness practise for everyone, whether you enjoy the spiritual aspects of the practice or simply want a practical and effective way to boost the health of your mind and body.
Here is a basic way to practice meditation. Just like anything else, it takes dedication and commitment to make it work!
- Find a quiet space with few distractions. You can sit inside or outdoors, and you can even use a white noise machine or noise-cancelling headphones to create some peace and quiet.
- Choose a space and time with the right light levels. Some people enjoy muted daylight, some like sunrise, and some enjoy the dark – whatever works for you.
- Sit quietly but comfortably. It’s best to sit on the floor with a mat or cushion underneath you. You want to sit upright but be relaxed.
- Slowly relax all your muscles, looking for tension in your feet, ankles, legs, torso and head. You can slowly stretch, roll your neck or move side to side to help release tension.
- Close your eyes and try to block out everything in your mind, focusing as you take a slow breath in and slowly breath out. Some people find it easier to focus on a candle flame or a single object.
- You’ll notice thoughts and distractions popping into your mind. Be aware of them and try to dismiss them, regaining your focus on your breath or object.
- Start slow. Aim to meditate for 10 minutes a day and build up to something that is comfortable and doable for you.
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