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Health A to Z — 9 min

Your Digital Health: Meditation

March 7th, 2019
Biron

Finding the Best Meditation App for You

The benefits of meditation are well documented by scientific literature. From reducing stress, anxiety and depression, lowering blood pressure and improving the quality of sleep, to alleviating chronic pain and improving memory and brain function, the advantages of simply sitting still and focusing on one’s breathing are manifold. Though by no means a substitute for professional or medical therapies where prescribed, it’s one of the most powerful tools we have for enhancing overall mental health and well-being.

Meditation itself shouldn’t be too hard — it’s making time for it that can be. Starting a regular habit of meditation, and sticking with it, can be a challenge even for the most disciplined of us. This is where mobile apps come in, reminding you each day when it’s time to stop and sit, along with guided instruction and other visual and auditory cues to help make the most of your sessions and establish an ongoing routine. To assist us in better understanding these apps and what science supports them, we spoke with Roger Simard, B. Pharm., a consultant on digital health strategies and technology intelligence for public and private organizations.

The Apps

Headspace

The brainchild of Andy Puddicombe, a former Tibetan Buddhist Monk turned meditation instructor, Headspace launched in 2012 and is widely recognized by many as the leader in this space. That it’s Puddicombe’s own voice leading you through guided sessions and topical ruminations gives the app a more engaging and personal touch, and the intuitive sequencing of exercises makes the experience of using Headspace almost like immersing oneself in an ongoing journey. Among the apps discussed here Headspace probably has the cleanest, most pleasing design, with lots of playful graphics and illustrations, and it’s easy to navigate the app’s extensive library of classes. 10-day free trial; $17.00/month, $129.99/year

Mindfulness with Petit Bambou

The market for French-language meditation apps is under serviced, with neither Headspace or Calm offering versions in French. Fortunately, Petit Bambou, France’s most popular health and fitness app for iOS, fills the gap nicely with an elegant, tidy interface and over 550 guided meditations, talks around relevant themes such as compassion and managing anxiety at work, and a breathing visualization exercise. Free trial of 8 meditation sessions; $10.99/monthly, $49.99/6 months

Calm

Named by Apple as the iPhone app of the year for 2017, Calm rivals Headspace in popularity, offering a less-structured approach to meditation practice that may appeal to more experienced meditators. The design interface can be a bit intrusive and confusing to navigate at times, but some users may prefer Calm’s background nature scenery and its broad selection of ambient soundscapes and melodies over Headspace’s more streamlined approach. 7-day free trial; $76.99/year

Muse

Created by the Canadian startup InteraXon, Muse is not just an app but a sleek headset that rests across the forehead and around the ears, with EEG sensors that measure brain activity and feed results back through your app. Some of that feedback comes in the form of sounds, such as light bird song or city noise, meant to represent the user’s present state of mind. The sensors are in turn used to guide the user through different meditation modes, oriented toward focus, lowered heart rate, relaxation and breathing. Muse is one of the most advanced wearables of its kind in the meditation market, and, unlike apps like Headspace, its efficacy is backed by results from clinical trials — including one that demonstrated enhanced cognitive performance after four weeks. $299 for Muse 2 headset, with lifetime subscription to app

Our specialist's take

While Headspace, Petit Bambou and Calm have many things to recommend them, Simard, B. Pharm., a consultant on digital health strategies and technology intelligence for public and private organizations, says it’s important to keep in mind is that “none of the companies making these apps are doing any sort of randomized clinical trials to back up their claims, so it’s impossible to say whether one is truly more efficacious than any other. We do know from clinical research that meditation generally is good for you — so that’s what these companies are saying, ‘We have an app that helps you meditate, therefore our app is good.’”

How then to choose the right meditation app for you? “It’s all very subjective and up to user preference,” says Simard. Given that the monthly fees can make these apps expensive, Simard recommends first taking advantage of free-trial periods to determine which one you personally find most effective and agreeable to use. You might simply prefer the look and feel of one over the others, the quality or tone of the guidance, or the structure of lessons and specific exercises offered. In the end it’s all about which produces the best results for you, factoring in a price over the long term that you’re comfortable with, and whether you’re ok with an English app or would prefer something designed from the ground up for Francophones.

Where the potential of apps in this category really expands is with the introduction of wearable technology that tracks mental and physical activity in real time. This is where a product like Muse stands out, measuring the user’s brainwaves to provide biofeedback that helps improve the quality of a meditation session. It’s by capturing this data, Simard says, that an app can analyze what your mind is actually doing, then provide cues or exercises to adjust how you are breathing or what you’re thinking about — offering positive reinforcement. “The people behind Muse are neuroscientists, and unlike others in this category the device and app are actually being used in clinical settings.” And, as Simard points out, Muse is proving to have potential benefits beyond just meditation, “but all sorts of medical conditions, including ADHD and anxiety.” The headset’s hefty price tag, however, might mean it’s not for everyone, especially novice meditators just trying to get in the swing of it.

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