Om sweet om: why clearing your mind is the best thing you can do for your body.
Credit: Illustration: Brittany Molineux

One of the quickest things you can do to improve your health takes little thought: meditation. Experts agree that the practice can have profound effects, both immediate and long-term, on your life. "Early on, you notice that you're calmer, you handle stress better, you're less reactive, your relationships improve, and you sleep better," says John Yates, PhD, director of Dharma Treasure Buddhist Sangha in Tucson, Arizona, and author of The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Using Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science.

Why is meditation so great? Just like when you exercise, physiological changes take place in your body when you meditate. Studies show that just eight weeks of meditation can increase density in the area of your brain responsible for executive function, which helps regulate emotions, holds information, and allows you to perform at your highest level. And meanwhile, the amygdala, the part of your brain that acts like a stress button, shrinks. It's like going to the gym for your brain.

"Meditation changes the way the brain responds to stressful situations," says Beth Darnall, PhD, clinical associate professor at Stanford University and author of Less Pain, Fewer Pills.

How much meditation do you need to reap these rewards? That's up for debate. While studies often look at 30-minute sessions, shorter amounts of 5 to 10 minutes, or even just 1 minute, can also do you good, says Bonnie Marks, PsyD, psychologist at Rusk Rehabilitation at NYU Langone in New York City. In fact, how long you meditate may not be as important as how frequently you meditate—daily, ideally.

If every day sounds like a challenge, know this: "Meditation can be done anywhere, anytime," Marks says. While sitting in a comfortable position in a quiet atmosphere is ideal, you can meditate anywhere, including in an elevator, while walking your dog, or when you're washing dishes. "Whenever you can be more mindful, no matter what you're doing, you're meditating and, as a result, gaining little pockets of mental freedom throughout the day," she says.

And for all of the naysayers who say their mind is too busy to meditate, that's actually the point. "You're not trying to keep your mind still when you meditate," Yates says. "Instead, you're trying, in a very gentle way, to keep your attention anchored to something, the breath being the most common anchor."

Your mind will wander, especially when you first start out with a meditation practice, but those periods of wandering will eventually get shorter, and soon you'll be able to stay focused on your breath for longer periods. "Don't worry about how many times your mind wanders," Yates says. "Instead, take a positive attitude and tell yourself that's just one less time you have to pull it back in."