Mindfulness is the act of paying attention – in an intentional and nonjudgmental way – to your own thoughts and feelings. Being more aware of your own self leads to reduced stress and increased positive emotions. But, it can also lead to better health. Not just emotional health and mental well-being, but physical health (measured by factors such as obesity and cardiovascular conditions).
A group of researchers at Brown University has been prospectively studying a birth cohort in the New England Family Study. The latest findings from this group, published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, reveal that central obesity and adiposity are inversely related to mindfulness. That is, people who are not mindful are 34% more likely to be obese and are also more likely to have increased abdominal fat. Further, people who were not obese as children but became obese as adults had lower mindfulness scores than people who were not obese in childhood or adulthood.
The participants self-reported levels of mindfulness using the 15-point Mindful Attention Awareness Scale. Adiposity was measured using dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) scans. The results were adjusted for age, gender, race/ethnicity, birth weight, childhood socioeconomic status, childhood intelligence, and other lifestyle and demographic variables.
Some people practice mindfulness by meditating and learning to intensely focus their thoughts inward. The current study, however, focused more on “dispositional mindfulness” – paying attention to your thoughts and feelings during everyday tasks. Dispositional mindfulness is more of a personality trait than a meditative practice, and the authors think that this trait can be learned and improved.
Being aware of your current feelings and thoughts helps you associate behaviors – like eating, exercising, or smoking, for example – with how you feel (emotionally and physically) after completing the behavior. In this way, mindfulness can help you overcome cravings to eat unhealthy food or smoke a cigarette and override aversions to exercise.
The same group of researchers has linked dispositional mindfulness with healthy diet choices, healthy glucose levels, increased physical activity, a healthy body mass index, and avoiding smoking. Mindfulness has not been associated with healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels, but these measures of health are not correlated to how you feel in a specific moment, which may influence the findings.
None of these studies can establish a causal link between physical health and mindfulness, but mindfulness may help people cognitively defeat barriers that are preventing them from living their most healthy life. People who are mindful of how they feel are more likely to feel in control of their lives and their choices. Understanding what we do and why we do it is the first step to making better choices.