I am too busy to meditate. I have read the overwhelming number of studies convincing me of the benefits for my long-term brain health, current mental state, and quality of sleep, but when in the day, when you’re up at 5am with a baby before packing another child off to school and squeezing in some work, is there time?
Having said that, I’ve just done my first session. Apple Fitness +, the tech company’s fitness platform, has just released its first guided meditation packages to join its core workouts including HIIT, strength and yoga. With sessions starting at five minutes, they are obviously targeting newbies like me, along with seasoned pros.
“Meditation is the perfect complement to a fitness routine and is something we thought about while developing Fitness+,” says Julz Arney, director of fitness for health technologies at Apple. “It’s so important because it rounds out the effort of working out with the renewal and recharging needed to balance you physically and mentally.”
I started with a five-minute ‘Wisdom’ meditation (who doesn’t need that?) with JoAnna Hardy, who has taught meditation for more than 15 years and is a University of Southern California faculty member. Wisdom, she goes on to explain, can sometimes just mean making the best choice that gives us the best outcome. While my husband makes breakfast for the children, I sit in the other room, listening to Hardy lead me through exercises, thinking about how I tend to let myself get pulled into choices – and how I would like to change that.
I decide to take advantage of the peace and quiet and do another five minutes – this time with Jonelle Lewis, a yoga and meditation teacher based in London – and so I do a resilience meditation. She encourages me to think of the feeling of being supported by a friend and to meditate on what that feels like. She says that being able to recall that in times of stress can be just as effective as actually having that support in real life. It feels like advice I could use.
The new offering from Apple joins the ranks of meditations from Headspace, Calm and Buddify and a global mindfulness meditation apps market that is expected to reach more than $4.2 billion by 2027, according to market data company ResearchAndMarkets.com. Separate research by Bupa Global shows that over a quarter of UK adults have meditated as a way to improve their mental wellbeing with, interestingly, more men (30 per cent) taking it up than women (18 per cent).
Mental and physical benefits
A slice of calm is more needed than ever. According to the Office of National Statistics, around one in five adults experienced some form of depression in early 2021 – more than double than those reported before the pandemic – with young women suffering the most. Among its many studied and documented health benefits, meditation has been shown to help with some symptoms of depression, according to a review of studies by John Hopkins University.
“For many people, their mental health has become as important as their physical health during this time, so we’re excited that meditation is arriving on Fitness+ when people may need it most,” says Arney.
There are so many other benefits that meditation can provide, some of which we know, and others that researchers are still discovering. It can increase the grey matter in your brain, according to a study from UCLA, potentially boost your life expectancy thanks to increased telomerase activity, which keeps your chromosomes young, researchers UC Davis reported; and even reduce physical pain, as documented recently in the Journal of Neuroscience.
Meditation often suffers from seeming a bit woo-woo. But studies show that it has a physical effect on the brain. A team at Harvard found that eight weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was found to increase cortical thickness in the hippocampus, which controls learning and memory, and in areas of the brain that help with regulating our emotions. Along with that, the researchers found that meditation decreased cell volume in the amygdala, which governs fear, anxiety and stress.
So why aren’t we all doing it? Probably, just as I thought, because it seems too much like hard work. I listened to another Hardy ‘workout’ as I walked back from school drop-off. This is what the Fitness+ workouts are designed for: “The meditations are designed to be incorporated into your everyday life and can be done sitting, standing or while doing light exercise like walking, hiking or stretching. We want to make it as easy as possible to meditate any time, anywhere,” Arney says.
Perhaps this is meditation lite, but who cares? It’s got me started. Arney adds that meditation doesn’t need to be a competition. “The goal isn’t necessarily to be good at meditating; it’s to bring the benefits of meditation into your daily life, like feeling more focused and attentive, being kind to yourself and others, and reflecting on your values and what matters most to you.”
How long do I need?
My session was short at 15 minutes (but not the shortest), and actually could be enough to see benefits. A recent study published in the journal Neuropsychology Review found that just 15 minutes of meditation is needed to produce brain-boosting benefits. Tim Whitfield of University College London, who led the research, said that older adults saw the most gains. “The benefit was larger for those aged 60 and over – equivalent to someone remembering an extra word from a 15-item list read to them half an hour ago,” he says. He says that more research needs to be done to see if longer sessions produce greater results.
It’s too early for me to feel the full cognitive benefits, but it has left me feeling noticeably calmer and has provoked food for thought. Maybe I can use that resilience training when I next need it.
Guided Meditations are available on Apple Fitness+ (£9.99 per month or £79.99 per year; first month is free to existing Apple Watch users)