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Jul 20, 2021
4 min read

Mindfulness exercises: benefits and where to start

Mindfulness exercises focus on relatively simple mindfulness meditation sessions to promote self-compassion, curb negative thoughts and lessen symptoms of anxiety and stress.

felix gussonerob roy britt

Reviewed by Felix Gussone, MD

Written by Robert Roy Britt

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Mindfulness exercises that improve wellbeing involve mindfulness meditation or meditation-like techniques, either done independently or through guided meditation. Each exercise aims to focus your attention on the present moment, the physical sensations in your body, and other sensations around you and in your mind. The goal is to make you more aware and accepting of your thoughts and feelings. 

You can practice simple mindfulness exercises right when you wake up each morning or anytime you can find a quiet spot during the day. You can even try some mindful walking. 

Mindfulness meditation exercises and techniques can require as little as two minutes of your time. But be aware that you might enjoy them so much that you want to devote much more time than that.

What are mindfulness exercises?

Research has shown that mindfulness meditation can help reduce stress and anxiety, improve sleep, and reduce symptoms of depression and other mental health conditions (American Psychological Association, 2019). Mindfulness meditation exercises aim to get you into a helpful meditative state.

Mindfulness meditation focuses your attention on thoughts, feelings, sounds, and other sensations around you. Rather than tune these things out, you tune in and focus on the present moment and, importantly, accept the physical senses and other inputs without judgment, without responding or reacting (American Psychological Association, 2019).

Meditation is not about preventing thoughts from entering your mind nor ceasing to think. Instead, it’s about not letting thoughts control you. And it’s not about escaping the real world, but instead taking a journey within yourself to see things more clearly and understand how your thoughts affect your actions (Kaiser Permanente, n.d.).

There are many types of mindfulness exercises, all aiming to help you relax while being alert and focused. They typically involve sitting quietly and focusing either on your breathing or a repeated mantra. While doing that, you also pay attention to any of the following things and let them come and go without judging them (HelpGuide, n.d.):

  • Thoughts
  • Itches or other body sensations
  • Sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches
  • Emotions
  • Cravings

Awareness of breathing, often deep breaths, is at the core of most mindfulness exercises, and for a good reason: Deep breathing (sometimes called controlled breathing) all by itself has been linked to lower stress, better brain function, and lower blood pressure (Harvard Health Publishing, 2020; Ma, 2017; Grossman, 2001). 

Breathing also serves as an anchor to the present moment. Other possible anchors include repeated mantras or a body scan where you focus on each part of the body one at a time (Behan, 2020).

Examples of simple mindfulness exercises

Here’s a very basic mindfulness exercise (Harvard Health Publishing, 2021):

  1. Sit cross-legged on the floor or in a straight-backed chair.
  2. Focus on the air flowing into your nose and out of your mouth or your belly rising and falling as you breathe.
  3. Once you’re concentrating well, pay close attention to other sensations.
  4. Embrace then let go of those sensations without judging them as good or bad. If your mind wanders, focus again on breathing and then re-expand your awareness.

You can do the same process lying down. You can also try focusing more deliberately on each part of your body, starting with your head and working down to your toes. Also, practicing this outside can engage your senses more fully (Mayo Clinic, 2020).

Here’s what to expect (Behan, 2020):

“By doing this and by allowing thoughts to come and go without attachment, without trying to hold on to them, we learn that calm and stillness follows. We come to know our own minds over time and to be aware of patterns of thinking that habitually arise.”

Shorter mindfulness activities have been developed to help you practice mindfulness throughout daily life, often focusing on simple breathing exercises. These include:

  • Just as you wake up, take two minutes to focus on your breathing while letting go of whatever thoughts pop into your head (Hougaard, 2016).
  • The STOP exercise simply has you Stop what you’re doing, Take a breath, Observe your thoughts and emotions, then Proceed (Kaiser Permanente, n.d.).
  • At work or anywhere you can find a spot to sit, focus on your breathing. Count to yourself during each inhale and exhale for up to 10 minutes (Hougaard, 2016).
  • Walking meditation—focusing on the literal grounding effect of your feet contacting the surface—is one of many helpful mindfulness techniques (Behan, 2020).

How often to practice mindfulness exercises

Many of the studies that show mindfulness meditation to be effective involve having volunteers practice the technique for just four to eight weeks. Some experts suggest making the sessions a routine part of your life, doing them every day for six months (Mayo Clinic, 2020). Beginners can try sessions that last just five or 10 minutes, and setting a timer can be helpful (Kaiser Permanente, n.d.).

You can gain more benefits from mindfulness practice by doing longer sessions and/or doing them more frequently. Some people may find it takes 20 minutes or so for the mind to begin to really settle (Harvard Health Publishing, 2021).

Mindfulness exercises come in many flavors, whether via group therapy clinics or online guides or apps (American Psychological Association, 2019). So you can choose a more social approach or practice in the privacy of your home. And if you feel you’re not the type, or you won’t be good at it, keep this in mind: Mindfulness is something you practice. It’s not a competition, so you can’t fail.

References

  1. American Psychological Association (2019) Mindfulness meditation: A research-proven way to reduce stress. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/topics/mindfulness/meditation

    Behan C. (2020). The benefits of meditation and mindfulness practices during times of crisis such as COVID-19. Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, 37(4), 256–258. doi: 10.1017/ipm.2020.38. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7287297/

    Grossman, E., Grossman, A., Schein, M. H., Zimlichman, R., & Gavish, B. (2001). Breathing-control lowers blood pressure. Journal of Human Hypertension, 15(4), 263–269. doi: 10.1038/sj.jhh.1001147. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11319675/

    Harvard Health Publishing (2020) Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant stress response. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/relaxation-techniques-breath-control-helps-quell-errant-stress-response

    Harvard Health Publishing (2021) Two mindfulness meditation exercises to try. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/alternative-and-complementary-medicine/two-mindfulness-meditation-exercises-to-try

    HelpGuide (n.d.) Benefits of Mindfulness. Retrieved from  https://www.helpguide.org/harvard/benefits-of-mindfulness.htm

    Hougaard R., Carter J. (2016). How to practice mindfulness throughout your work day. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from  https://hbr.org/2016/03/how-to-practice-mindfulness-throughout-your-work-day

    Kaiser Permanente (n.d.) Mindfulness. Retrieved from https://healthy.kaiserpermanente.org/health-wellness/mental-health/tools-resources/mindfulness

    Ma X, Yue ZQ, Gong ZQ, et al. (2017). The effect of diaphragmatic breathing on attention, negative affect and stress in healthy adults. Frontiers in Psychology; 8:874. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00874. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5455070/

    Mayo Clinic (2020) Mindfulness exercises. Retrieved from  https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/in-depth/mindfulness-exercises/art-20046356