The last decade has brought an explosion of interest in mindfulness, the practice of intentionally focusing awareness on here-and-now experience. The idea is to notice and accept experience as it unfolds from moment to moment without judging it.
That simple-sounding concept has a host of health implications. A large body of research now shows that practicing mindfulness can help people manage stress, reduce depression and anxiety, and cope with chronic pain and illness.
Recent studies have honed in on more specific benefits to living in the moment—everything from making better food choices to having a greater zest for life. For a practice with a rather touchy-feely reputation, mindfulness seems to have some surprisingly down-to-earth perks. Below is a small sampling of the latest findings.
Mindfulness promotes healthy eating in several ways. Slowing down and savoring every bite helps people enjoy food more while eating less of it. Becoming attuned to internal hunger cues helps them avoid snacking when tired or stressed rather than truly hungry. And noticing when they’re full helps people stop at that point instead of overeating.
But how well does all this work in the real world, where meals are often grabbed on the go? Surprisingly well, if a new study from the University of Texas at Austin is any indication. In the study, midlife women who dined out frequently were randomly assigned to either six weeks of mindfulness classes or a waiting list. Those in the classes practiced mindfulness eating exercises and also learned about diet and behavior change.
Class participants consumed fewer daily calories, lost more weight, and felt more confident about their ability to stick with diet changes. They also reported fewer problems with healthy eating in restaurants, where they continued to dine several times per week. Mindfulness might sound esoteric, but in this study it transferred well to everyday situations.
There’s growing awareness that harsh self-criticism about appearance isn’t just a problem for women. Men fall prey to body image issues, too. Mindfulness is thought to help counter this type of thinking. The theory is that it encourages a less judgmental, more accepting attitude toward life in general, and that extends to body size and shape in particular.
A study of almost 300 male college students backed this up. It showed that men higher in mindfulness tended to be happier with their appearance and more satisfied with their bodies. Compared to their less mindful counterparts, these men also showed less tendency toward an unhealthy fixation on becoming more muscular at all costs.
Fans of mindfulness claim that living in the moment helps people be not only healthier, but also happier. It’s an attitude toward life that encourages stressing less and stopping to smell the roses more. And it seems to work. Brain imaging studies have shown increased activity in part of the brain associated with positive emotions in people who practice mindfulness meditation.
Apparently, it’s a difference that even others can see. Researchers from Radboud University in the Netherlands created short video clips of people who had been introduced to mindfulness at a meditation retreat. Outsiders who viewed the clips rated the mindfulness newbies as happier looking, compared both to themselves before the retreat and to non-meditators.
Looking happier could have many social advantages, from attracting dates to bringing in business clients. Although just saying the word “mindfulness” still makes some people roll their eyes, evidence is mounting that living more mindfully can have very practical rewards.
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