Meditation and physical fitness are often associated with two opposite types of people. In the minds of many, the stereotypical meditator is either a hippie or a Buddhist monk, while the stereotypical gym-goer or Spartan racer is a jacked-up macho caricature.
Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how inaccurate the stereotypes about fitness buffs can be, but what you may not know is that meditation isn’t just for hippies and monks. It has a solid basis in science—it works by altering your brain’s dominant pattern of brain waves.
Most importantly for our purposes, meditation can improve your life, your health, and your athletic performance. It can make you happier, help you live longer, speed up your recovery from workouts, and even improve your technique and decision-making in sporting events.
Meditation Makes You Happier
Hundreds of studies have looked at the effects of meditation on symptoms of depression and anxiety, and they have consistently found that meditation is moderately to highly effective at improving anxiety and mood symptoms.
More recently, some studies have directly measured the relationship between meditation and happiness. Unsurprisingly, people who meditate tend to be happier. One 2016 study looked at the mechanisms by which meditation improves happiness, and found two of them. First, meditation improves mindfulness—your awareness of your own thoughts and emotions. Second, meditation builds self-compassion—it helps you to be more understanding, kind, and forgiving toward yourself.
While meditation tends to be a lifelong habit, just a few days of practice can significantly reduce psychological stress. By extension, it also lowers serum levels of cortisol, the body’s primary stress hormone. This suggests that meditation is likely to reduce the risk of stress-related psychiatric disorders as well as stress-related medical disorders such as migraines.
Meditation Makes You Healthier
The psychological benefits of meditation probably come as no surprise. What might be a surprise, however, is that meditation offers dramatic benefits to your physical health as well.
Regular meditation significantly improves several cardiovascular risk factors, including high blood pressure, cortisol levels, cholesterol levels, and the risk of type 2 diabetes. Most importantly, meditation lowers your risk of dying of cardiovascular disease.
In fact, several studies suggest that meditation reduces not only cardiovascular mortality, but also cancer mortality and all-causes mortality, at least in people who have high blood pressure. This appears to be due to meditation’s stress-lowering effects.
Meditation Makes You a Better Athlete
Meditation can improve athletic performance via several different mechanisms.
Meditation reduces exercise-induced oxidative stress. That, combined with the reduction in cortisol and improvements in sleep quality, means that regular meditation will help you recover from your workouts.
Meditation’s ability to boost focus and reduce tension can aid in activities which rely on precision. A Norwegian study found that meditation training significantly improved the performance of elite shooters.
So that brings us to the million-dollar question: what type of meditation is best for athletes? Meditative practices can be roughly divided into two categories: focused-attention meditations, in which you try to keep your attention on one thing, and open-monitoring meditation, in which you don’t try to focus on anything, but merely relax and monitor your thoughts.
Sports can also be divided into two categories. In closed-skill sports, like archery or discus throwing, the environment is consistent and predictable. Competitors in these sports strive to perform the same technique the same way, over and over. They generally want to focus completely on their technique while avoiding being distracted by the environment around them.
In open-skill sports, like surfing or basketball, the environment is inconsistent and unpredictable. In these sports, each game is different, as you need to respond to either the actions of the opposing players, as in basketball, or changes in the environment, as in surfing. Situational awareness is therefore key in these sports.
Recent research suggests that focused-attention meditation is better for closed-skill sports, as it supports the need to focus completely on one’s technique while shutting out external distractions. In contrast, open-skill athletes benefit more from open-monitoring meditation, which helps them to be more aware of their surroundings without being overwhelmed by sensory input.
How to Start Meditating
Most people overcomplicate this. You don’t need to learn any special meditation techniques. You don’t need to listen to special meditation soundtracks, or meditate in a natural environment. You don’t need to take a class. All of those things help, but they’re not necessary.
You also don’t need to spend a lot of time on it. In fact, you can start off by meditating for just two minutes a day. Yes, you’ll probably want to lengthen your meditation sessions as time goes on, but two minutes a day can be enough to produce noticeable effects in many people. Plus, when you start a new habit, your first priority should be to build the habit by doing it every day.
Here’s all you need to do: find somewhere quiet and comfortable to sit down. Sit in a comfortable position and close your eyes. Breathe deeply and slowly, and try to clear all thoughts from your head. If you find that difficult, you can mentally think “in, out” as you breathe in order keep other thoughts at bay.
That’s it. Do that for two minutes every day, then after a week you can start to gradually extend your daily meditation sessions to five minutes. Just two weeks of consistent daily meditation is enough for most people to experience a palpable improvement in mood and reduction in anxiety.