We all hope for good results when we head off on a plan to improve our health, but few — if any — of us become healthier without making an effort. The effort involved often means we have to change or add certain behaviors. We try to eat less, drink less, exercise more and so on.

Some people may be able to single-mindedly muster the willpower to cut sugar out of their diets, quit smoking or work their way up to running several miles each week; but others need help to make such changes.

Mindfulness is not the same as meditation, though it is part of many meditative practices

People find the practice of mindfulness can fortify their desire to persevere on the path to healthier behaviors and get better at the kind of emotional regulation needed to do things like eat better or manage anxiety. Mindfulness techniques are a feature of a number of health interventions, from weight loss to stress-reduction.

The findings of a team from Harvard University who decided to review the research on mindfulness-based health interventions should help those looking for ways to initiate and sustain healthy behaviors.

Mindfulness is the term given to the awareness that develops when a person pays attention to the present moment and at the same time remains nonjudgmental about what he or she perceives. As the researchers point out, it is not the same as meditation, though it is part of many meditative practices.

Practicing this kind of awareness is designed to help a person become better able to regulate their attention, emotions and thoughts, all of which are useful when trying to avoid the pull of long-standing patterns of unhealthy behavior, such as a lure of a late-night snack.

A number of mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) have been developed to help people reach their health goals, and the review looks at research on the usefulness of these approaches when it comes to getting things like substance abuse, smoking, anxiety, stress and high blood pressure under better control.

The study pulls together behavioral, neurological and physiological findings as well, showing how heart rates and stress hormone levels improve among those using MBIs. The emotional control mindfulness can bring was also found to reduce aggressive behavior, suicide and self-injury.

The review outlines specific mindfulness-based treatments for helping people stop binge and emotional eating and lose weight. Studies of tobacco smoking suggest that MBIs may provide better outcomes than other accepted treatments.

Mindfulness training was also found to help patients with chronic illnesses. It helped them make the behavior changes they needed to achieve better self-care and address their ongoing cravings for alcohol and drugs.

The model Zev Schuman-Olivier of Harvard Medical School and his colleagues present in the paper covers both the traditional “cool” approach to mindfulness, one focused on dispassionate attention, and a second, newer one. This emerging “warm” pathway emphasizes self-kindness. The authors present mindfulness-based interventions in this vein as focused on self-acceptance. Such therapies are being used to help those who have experienced trauma.

When it comes to helping us overcome behaviors that undermine health and develop those that can bring better health, therapies that teach us to be attentive to our thoughts, rather than letting them run away with our minds, can be effective. There is still more work to be done.

“While evidence supports the impact of mindfulness on behavior change for key health behaviors...” the authors explain, “[M]ore high-quality research is needed, especially with objective measures, larger samples, replication studies, active controls, and formal monitoring of adverse events.”

The review is pubished in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry.