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Health Fusion: Don't let mindfulness become another item on your to-do list. Make it meaningful

Life will be better once I lose 10 pounds, change jobs or check everything off of my to-do list. Sound familiar? In this "Health Fusion" column, Viv Williams explores why we should focus on being happy here and now with a Mayo Clinic doctor who studies mindfulness in his lab.

Mindfulness can help identify what you value most in life. Thinkstock.com
Practicing mindfulness exercises can help reduce stress, anxiety and depression. Thinkstock.com
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ROCHESTER, Minn. — Over the next several months, I’ll be writing about goals for a series we’re calling the Goal Getters. The idea is to help people set realistic goals and supply information and resources they need to be successful.

My goal to-do list is pretty long and includes organizing the house, getting in shape (not necessarily to look better, but to be able to lug the water softener salt to the basement or move wheelbarrows of soil without hurting myself), sleeping more and being mindful.

But after interviewing Dr. Roberto Benzo , director of Mayo Clinic’s Mindful Breathing Laboratory, I realize that putting mindfulness on my to-do list is exactly what I should not do if I want to make mindfulness meaningful.

“If we make mindfulness one more thing to add to our list of things we have to do in order to be successful or perfect, we’re doomed,” Benzo said. "Mindfulness and its health benefits come through simplifying and focusing in on what is meaningful in our lives. It comes with silence — with stopping and appreciating life. That's when we'll find balance."

In our society, switching off the distractions and unnecessary activities is not very easy. Many people feel as if they'll never catch up on everything they have to do.

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"We are in a constant state of noise and it's very hard to identify what's really important in life," Benzo said. "But everyone has the ability to change and appreciate life at the present moment."

Mindfulness is a bit of a buzzword these days and some people are skeptical about the benefits. But Benzo says the effort to pay more attention to the present moment matters to your mental and physical health.

"There are a plethora of studies that show mindfulness meditation helps improve back pain and hypertension," Benzo said. "The practice also may help with cardiovascular disease, anxiety and depression. And it's such a simple thing to do, really."

Benzo and his team study how mindfulness may help people with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) in Mayo Clinic's Mindful Breathing Laboratory. Many of the patients they see have experienced changes in their lives because of conditions, such as emphysema or chronic bronchitis.

"Some people feel as if they don't have a good life to live because they're sick," Benzo said. "We want to help them realize that they can improve their quality of life and health through mindfulness, even in the context of disease."

People in the study monitor their at-home activities with smart technology that records when they walk, relax, sleep and do other activities. They also have access to health coaches who help them work mindful activities into their days. Benzo says the goal is to eventually develop mindfulness-based interventions to help improve quality of life.

"Maybe you can't play golf any more, but that doesn't mean your life lacks meaning," Benzo said. "Your life is just different. People forget how much they might enjoy a cup of coffee or a meal with a friend. We hope to help them find meaning and enjoyment in life as they adjust to changes over time."

Benzo says no matter what, we are all going to change as we get older. And in order to have balance and happiness through the process, we need to pay attention to what really matters.

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After meeting with Dr. Benzo, I took mindfulness off of my to-do list and set a different type of goal; to pay more attention to the things in life that I value most.

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Follow the  Health Fusion podcast on  Apple,   Spotify and  Google podcasts. For comments or other podcast episode ideas, email Viv Williams at  vwilliams@newsmd.com. Or on Twitter/Instagram/FB @vivwilliamstv.

MORE HEALTH FUSION:
A dog's sense of smell has helped to find missing people, detect drugs at airports and find the tiniest morsel of food dropped from a toddler's highchair. A new study shows that dogs may also be able to sniff out when you're stressed out.

Opinion by Viv Williams
Viv Williams hosts the NewsMD podcast and column, "Health Fusion." She is an Emmy (and other) award-winning health and medical reporter whose stories have run on TV, digital and newspaper outlets nationwide. Viv is passionate about boosting people's health and happiness by helping them access credible, reliable and research-based health information from top experts. She regularly interviews experts and patients from leading medical institutions, such as Mayo Clinic.
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