Mindfulness can improve heart health

Research suggests a regular meditation practice could protect against heart disease. Here's how to begin one.


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What's good for the mind also tends to be good for the heart.

The mind-calming practice of meditation may play a role in reducing your risk of heart disease, according to a scientific statement published in the Sept. 28, 2017, Journal of the American Heart Association.

Experts reviewed dozens of studies published over the past two decades and found that meditation may improve a host of factors linked with heart disease — making it worth including in an overall program for ongoing heart care.

"Not only can meditation improve how your heart functions, but a regular practice can enhance your outlook on life and motivate you to maintain many heart-healthy behaviors, like following a proper diet, getting adequate sleep, and keeping up regular exercise," says Dr. John Denninger, director of research at the Harvard-affiliated Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Moving meditations

Sitting and being still isn't the only way to practice meditation. Mind-body activities like yoga and tai chi are similar to meditation in that they emphasize slow movements, controlled breathing, and mental focus. Even exercises that emphasize steady, repetitive movements, such as riding a bike, swimming laps, or walking can be a form of meditation, if you focus your brain on the task at hand.

The heart of meditation

Meditation involves sitting comfortably with closed eyes and focusing on your breathing, a mental image, or repetition of a single positive word or phrase. The goal is to keep your mind focused on the present and away from stressful or distracting thoughts. As your mind becomes calm, so does your body.

A meditation practice supports your heart in many ways — from changing how you cope with stress to lowering high blood pressure.

Research has found that meditation can positively affect a measure of heart health known as heart rate variability (HRV). HRV reflects how quickly your heart makes small changes in the time interval between each heartbeat. A high HRV is a sign of healthier heart. A 2013 study found that low HRV is associated with a 32% to 45% increased risk of heart attack or stroke among people without cardiovascular disease.

With regular meditation, you may be able to raise your HRV. A 2013 study found that people who did five minutes of meditation daily for 10 days had a better HRV compared with those who didn't meditate.

A number of high-quality studies also show that meditation can modestly lower blood pressure, according to a 2013 American Heart Association scientific statement published in Hypertension. One analysis pooled results from nine studies and found that, on average, meditation lowered systolic blood pressure (the top number in a reading) by 4.7 milligrams of mercury (mm Hg) and diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) by 3.2 mm Hg.

Take a seat

There are many different styles and approaches to meditation, but here is a simple routine to begin with.

  1. Sit quietly and close your eyes. Breathe slowly.

  2. Relax all of your muscles, beginning with your feet, legs, and thighs.

  3. Shrug your shoulders and roll your neck to the left and then right.

  4. On each exhalation, say the word "peace" out loud or to yourself.

  5. When your thoughts wander (and they will), don't get discouraged. Simply go back to repeating the pattern.

  6. Continue for five to 10 minutes.

Thinking about a practice

As with any new endeavor, it takes time to learn meditation and build confidence in your ability. Dr. Denninger recommends that you begin small and give yourself space to progress at your own speed.

For example, devote just five minutes a few days per week to meditation, and then gradually increase the time and frequency until you can do it daily for up to 20 minutes. "Doing some meditation, no matter how brief, is always better than nothing," says Dr. Denninger.

Set up a schedule to help establish a routine. Try to meditate at the same time each day, says Dr. Denninger. If you have trouble sticking to a set time, plan to do your meditation after a regular activity like brushing your teeth. "If you miss a day or two, don't feel you have lost any progress and have to start over," says Dr. Denninger. "Simply pick up where you left off and keep going."

Some people find that learning and practicing meditation with a group is helpful, so you could inquire about meditation classes at yoga studios and community centers, or even follow meditation exercises online. Meditation can be yet another way to improve heart health and at the same time help ease your mind.