Can Mindfulness Improve Health?

Let’s face it; many of us are feeling more stressed these days. At Fitbit, we noticed users are taking steps to manage stress through increased engagement with our mindfulness and meditation content. Our data science team decided to dig deeper to explore how a few minutes of mindfulness per day can impact our health and wellness.

Mindfulness practices have risen in popularity over the past decade for good reason. By focusing your attention on the immediate present for a sustained period, you can enjoy a growing spread of benefits ranging from reduced stress to improved focus and memory. 

Our research team uncovered two more mindfulness-driven benefits to the list: improved sleep quality and heart health. This is good news if you’re stressed and looking for a way to manage anxiety. But to understand the real impact of mindfulness on health and wellness, it’s crucial to explain Heart Rate Variability (HRV) and its connection to the nervous system.

Heart Rate Variability: Our window into the nervous system

HRV plays a vital role in displaying many aspects of our health and wellness by measuring the time between your heartbeats. Namely, this indicator helps researchers observe the nervous system. With HRV, we can see how people rest and recover or react to external stimuli. The higher your HRV, the longer you have in between heartbeats, which typically indicates a lower amount of stress. 

During regular events, such as attending a meeting, watching television, or speaking to a friend, your heart continually responds to the environment, increasing or decreasing with each external stress and emotion. During these events, the fluctuations in the time between heartbeats is mostly random. During meditation, however, we notice an interesting effect: by focusing exclusively on breathing, a person can calm their senses regardless of external surroundings. In this mindful state, the fluctuations in the heart rate interval approach a rhythmic sine wave pattern. This wave pattern is called many different things: zen, tranquility, flow state—but most of all; it’s a calming, stress-reducing state of mind.

As our research team explored HRV, they realized that HRV is a great way to quantify the efficacy of meditation, hypothesizing that there would be other quantifiable benefits. The first health benefit we looked into was sleep, where our team set out to investigate how we can improve sleep quality to cope with stress and anxiety better.

Mindfulness and Sleep Quality

1451 Fitbit field testers participated in a study to determine whether an eight-day mindfulness practice could improve sleep quality. Spoiler alert: it does. 

We know from existing research that virtually everyone struggles from issues related to sleep quality at some point in their life. When we asked Fitbit users about overall sleep quality, we asked about two specific criteria; sleep latency (the time it takes to fall asleep) and sleep disturbances (the number of times you wake up during the night preventing you from getting deep sleep). 

The majority of responders reported that they struggled to fall asleep within 30 minutes at least once or twice a week. On top of that, most responders aged 50 years and older woke up in the middle of the night or early morning three or more times per week. 

“We noticed that many of our users play sleep-related mindfulness apps during the night. The usage of these apps peaks between 9 pm and 11 pm. Therefore, we wanted to examine in more detail how mindfulness activities can have a positive impact on users’ sleep health,” said Staff Data Scientist, Aravind Natarajan.

We asked our participants to practice 15 minutes of mindfulness before bedtime over the course of eight days in the form of three types of mindfulness activities available in Fitbit Premium: 

  1. Breathing: Simple in-and-out breathing exercises based on heart rate to help calm your nervous system
  2. Bodyscan: Focused physical awareness aimed at relaxing one part of the body at a time. 
  3. Story: Guided meditations and stories tailored toward relaxation. 

With a 15-minute mindfulness practice over eight days, our survey respondents reported nearly one full point improvement in their responses. Let’s unpack that to show how big of a difference that one point is.

As you can see in the above chart, there were some significant improvements in sleep quality in falling asleep more quickly and staying asleep within that one-point improvement. So, one full point for how often a participant would wake up at night would represent the difference in waking up three or more times per week down to once or twice per week. That’s a big difference for someone looking to get longer, higher quality sleep. 

Sleep is when the body repairs itself, so a lowered heart rate and increased HRV could indicate that the parasympathetic nervous system is functioning well, allowing the body to recover from stressful events. Increased HRV means that you have more time between beats, which indicates that you could get better sleep and recover from stress. With mindfulness, we can increase our HRV and calm our brain despite stressful environmental factors. 

For example, the below chart shows HRV before and after starting a mindfulness activity – the mindfulness session begins at the ten-minute mark. As you can see, the effects are immediate and striking.  

With origins dating back centuries to ancient Eastern civilizations, mindfulness has long helped people enjoy a series of health and wellness benefits. Today this still holds true; with the increasing stresses we face today, mindfulness is even more critical to help people relax and calm their nerves. By incorporating a consistent mindfulness practice of just a few minutes each day in your life you can improve your heart health and enjoy a more restful, restorative night’s sleep.

Managing our mental and physical stress has never been more important, and we’ll continue to explore the correlations between stress, mindfulness, and our overall health and wellness. While this study focused on meditation before bed, the physiological benefits are clear: mindfulness can help us calm down and experience powerful benefits. So whether you’re trying to calm down before bed, improve focus during the workday, or simply clear your mind, you can try out our lineup of mindfulness exercises for yourself with a free 90-day subscription to Fitbit Premium here.

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