Wellness trends: Lena Dunham on fitness, Weight Watchers mindfulness and mental baths

Meditation and mindfulness go mainstream and it’s all about brain health

Girls’ creator Lena Dunham’s Instagram quote about her motivation for exercising epitomises a growing Millennial philosophy about fitness – working out is not about weight or appearances.

The wellness revolution continues to roll as our obsession with all things natural and healthy shows no sign of slowing (Editor’s note: thankfully). This week we look at brain health trends that we will be talking about in 2016.

Brain health

Brain health is "coming to the fore", says Prof Sabina Brennan, co-director at the Neil (Neuro Enhancement for Independent Lives) Memory Research Unit at Trinity College in Dublin. "There are a lot of us working away to get brain health on the radar."

At a celebration of the International Day of Yoga, at St Anne’s Park, Clontarf, in Dublin last summer. Photograph: Eric Luke

Brennan says that people should make the connection between our brains and the rest of our bodies. “Cardio vascular health is directly related to our brain health. Our brains needs oxygen to function and the brain needs nutrients. What’s good for your heart is good for your brain, so physical activity and weight management is important.”

Social isolation and loneliness are bad for brain health, she says. “Meaningful connection is important. If you’re not using [your brain] you will lose it.”


So what do we need to do?

Meditation and mindfulness go mainstream

Nothing has been talked about more in recent years than mindfulness. It has, says mindfulness teacher Catherine Sutton, become "a little cottage industry with people jumping on the bandwagon without really knowing what it is".

That may be so but, according to delegates at the Global Wellness Summit in Mexico in November, in 2016 more people will finally start practising it because it’s about to become far more accessible and unintimidating.

Their example? Weight Watchers International is expanding its focus from weight loss to total wellness, hinting that its nearly one million weekly meeting-goers will be introduced to meditation. Stateside, meditation and chill out time is moving from being a solo activity to social affair.

The Big Quiet in New York recently attracted 800 people for an after-work organised meditation. Organiser Jesse Israel has run similar large events in Central Park and aims to spread to multiple cities. Is meditation becoming the new happy hour?

Self compassion

Building on mindfulness, Sutton says self compassion is the latest add-on. “A lot of people who come to my mindfulness courses have anxiety, depression and stress. But they also have a lot of self-judgment and self-criticism and a harsh attitude to how they’re coping. That harsh voice and unkind judge is not helpful. It can push people down, crush them and make them feel depressed.”

While everybody is “self critical, we tend to have high standards and when we don’t meet them, we feel we have failed in some way. But that unkind judging voice we use on ourselves is not something we would use on anybody else. You wouldn’t speak to a friend the way you speak to yourself. So, cultivating skills of greater compassion for ourselves along with mindfulness is helpful.”

Fitness for wellness

Lena Dunham’s Instagram quote about her motivation for exercising epitomises a growing Millennial philosophy about fitness – working out is not about weight or appearances. The creator and star of Girls, who has recently been praised for using social media to speak about her experience of endometriosis, Dunham says she is exercising to ease anxiety and feel strong rather than just to lose weight.

Speaking at the launch of a US My Body Can campaign, a series to celebrate women’s athletic accomplishments, she spoke about her evolution from a sports-free childhood to having a new love of running. One of the best parts, she said, was realising just how much her body is physically capable of.

“My relationship to eating, my relationship to critiquing my own shape, all of that has changed since I’ve started viewing my body much more as a tool to do my work.”

She’s not on her own (thankfully) – a report by Goldman Sachs last year found Baby Boomers and Generation X more likely to define the word “healthy” as “not sick”.

Millennials define “healthy” in terms that encompass whole health, using phrases such as “eating right” and “exercising”. Right on trend.

Transcendental meditation

"A mental bath" is how Transcendental Meditation (TM) instructor Stewart Luck, describes TM, a method of calming the mind. It originated in India and gained exposure in the West in 1968 when the Beatles went to a TM session at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in northern India.

At a recent introductory session to TM held in Brú Columbanus in Cork, 25 people, comprising slightly more women than men, listened to Luck’s promotion of TM. He says it refreshes the mind. “If you don’t rest your mind, you will burn out.”

It is also good for the body, he says, particularly the anxious body. He describes it as “deep physical rest and mind calming”.

When the body is in a state of deep rest, the brain actually becomes more active. This can be measured through increased blood flow to the brain. It goes mainly to the prefrontal cortex, decreasing stress. After a few weeks of practising TM, people usually notice that they sleep better and smoke or drink less, he says. Then self confidence and the ability to focus on tasks improves.

Be selfish

Keeping the focus on yourself, who would have thought that selfishness could be talked up as a trait worth nurturing?

"When you take care of yourself first, you show up as a healthy, grounded person in life," says Bob Rosen, author of Grounded: How Leaders Stay Rooted in an Uncertain World.

Rosen says that it is in our nature to take care of our own needs first. However, this survival instinct got a bad rap and became the source of negative emotions such as fear and guilt. But there are degrees of selfishness such as being healthily selfish. Taking a nap to replenish your energy or going off by yourself can be seen as selfish. But some “me time” is ultimately good for you as well as those around you.