Calm vs Headspace: Which Meditation App Is Best?

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Table of Contents

Straight Answer – Which app is better?

The best app for you will depend on your individual needs and preferences. Here are some factors to consider:

  • Your experience with meditation: If you are a beginner, Headspace may be a better choice because it offers a more structured approach to learning meditation. Calm may be a better choice if you are more experienced with meditation and are looking for a more relaxing experience.
  • Your goals: If you are looking to improve your sleep, Calm’s sleep stories may be a good option for you. If you are looking to manage stress, Headspace’s focus mode may be a better choice.
  • Your budget: Both apps have free trials, so you can try them both out before you decide which one to subscribe to.

Ultimately, the best way to decide which app is right for you is to try both of them and see which one you prefer.

Here are some additional factors to consider when choosing a meditation app:

  • The quality of the audio: The audio quality of the guided meditations is important, as it can make a big difference in your ability to relax and focus.
  • The variety of content: The app should offer a variety of guided meditations, sleep stories, and other mindfulness exercises to choose from.
  • The user interface: The user interface should be easy to use and navigate.
  • The price: The app should be affordable and offer a free trial or money-back guarantee.

Introduction

Both the Calm and Headspace apps’ primary goal, is to help people achieve everyday wellness in their lives through mindfulness practices. While both apps predominantly focus on meditation applications, they also have programs intended to improve sleep, reduce stress, manage emotions, boost fitness, educate consumers about a variety of wellness topics – and overall, promote dedication to self-care.

As people continue to find the balance in modern day life between work, family, self-care, and socialization, mindfulness apps such as Calm and Headspace, have become a popular device to deliver relaxation quickly, anytime and anywhere. Both apps aim to be a one-stop-shop for all things mindful.

In this article we will discuss what mindfulness means and how it is helpful, define meditation and its benefits, discuss the benefits of good sleep and exercise, and we will address the pros and cons of the Calm and Headspace app

Ultimately, these apps each have their own benefits as well as drawbacks, making personal preference the defining factor. As a therapist who practices meditation, participates in daily exercise, and makes sleep a priority, I am a firm believer in any application which helps people improve these self-care practices.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness can best be described as intentionally focusing on ones’ thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and actions, with the goal of maintaining awareness without judgement. Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhist meditation (Kabat-Zinn, 2010).  Both the Calm and Headspace apps, use the practice of mindfulness throughout their various applications of meditations, sleep assistance, and fitness.

How is Mindfulness helpful?

As we all know, modern life is filled with distractions and an overall busyness which can be difficult to navigate. Over stimulation from our environment is a common complaint. Many of us are unaware of the effects our environment and lifestyle have on us, until we are able to detach in quiet and in solitude. Taking moments to be quiet internally and to be mindful, helps us to relax and decrease stress.

What is Meditation?

Meditation is considered a mindfulness practice intended to relax the mind and body. There are several ways to meditate, from Transcendental meditation, where a person silently repeats a personally assigned mantra while seated, to Qi gongwhich utilizes movement. In addition to these forms of meditation, there are several other types of meditation practices.

Meditation is an ever increasingly popular form of taking care of one’s wellness. It is estimated that about 15% of all adults meditate. Worldwide, around 275 million people, including children, meditate (Kane, 2022). Meditation is known for improving mental health as well as improving physical well-being (Mejia, 2022). 

A barrier for many people to meditate, is time.  Both of these apps make meditation approachable by offering segments of practice in increments as little as 3-minutes. It is recommended that people interested in meditating try a few different methods first, in order to find a practice that best suits them.

With both the Calm app as well as the Headspace app, there are introductory courses for beginning meditators, which can be very helpful in starting any new practice. The Mayo Clinic does advise people who have never meditated, to check with their doctor first, as in rare cases, there can be counterproductive effects for some people with certain mental health issues (Staff, 2022). 

What are the benefits of meditation?

Every year, there are an increasing number of research studies performed regarding the benefits of meditation. Scientists are finding brain scan images as some of the most exciting evidence supporting the positive benefits of meditation practice. 

Sara Lazar Ph.D, a neuroscientist from Harvard, has spent most of her life’s work focusing on how meditation reshapes the brain. As we age, so does our brain, the most significant change being a decrease in our grey matter. Dr. Lazar has found through her research, and the utilization of brain scans, that meditation can improve the health of the brain in the following ways (Sara Lazar, 2012):

  • Increases grey matter
  • Increase thickness of the hippocampus (our brain’s center for learning, memory, and emotion)
  • Shrinks the cells of the Amygdala (our brain’s stress center, fight-flight-freeze)

Gaelle Desbordes Ph.D., a neuroscientist who studies how different forms of meditation affect the brain, has also found supportive evidence of the positive benefits of meditation. She uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which allows scientists to look at the brain activity during the scan, in addition to taking a picture of the brain. 

In 2012, Dr. Desbordes demonstrated the beneficial changes of the brain which occur in those who meditate, remain steady (Powell, 2018) – in other words, the benefits of meditation last throughout the day, months, years of those who regularly practice.

According to Forbes, there are 10 science-backed benefits of meditation (Mejia, 2022)

  1. Lowers blood-pressure
  2. Strengthens immune system
  3. Improves memory
  4. Regulates mood
  5. Helps manage anxiety 
  6. Helps manage depression
  7. Reduces stress
  8. Can help manage addiction
  9. Increases self-awareness
  10. Improves sleep

What are the benefits of sleep?

Growing up, most of us were told we need to get at least 8 hours of sleep for optimal health. Studies have gone back and forth about how much sleep we really need, and those amounts differ according to our age. However, almost every doctor endorses the importance of a good night’s rest, and its positive influence over our health (Summer, 2022).

  • Improved mood
  • Heart health
  • Regulated blood sugar
  • Improved mental health
  • Stronger immune system response
  • Reduced stress
  • Improved athletic performance
  • Maintain healthy weight

Sleep is so important in fact, that those who have been deprived of sleep, can incur a number of health-related issues. Some health issues related to poor sleep include (Patrick Finan): 

  • Increased risk of colorectal cancer
  • Increased risk of type-2 diabetes 
  • High blood pressure 
  • Lowered immunity response 
  • Increased risk of developing heart disease 
  • Increased risk for dementia 
  • Increased risk for depression, anxiety, forgetfulness, and fuzzy thinking  

In fact, in extreme cases, extensive sleep deprivation can lead to delirium, hallucinations, and psychosis.

The benefits of exercise

Exercise has many benefits. Though most of us are aware that regular exercise can improve our health, finding the time to do it can be a struggle. Experts state any amount of exercise is valuable, so if you feel as though you don’t have time, even 10 minutes a day can improve your health (Yeager, 2007). Here are just some of the benefits of regular exercise.

  • Reduces risk of type 2 diabetes
  • Lowers risk for some cancers
  • Strengthens bones and muscles
  • Increases your chances of living longer
  • Improves heart health
  • Helps maintain a healthy weight
  • Improves thinking and cognition
  • Can help reduce anxiety and depression
  • Can help improve sleep

Good news for app lovers, both the Calm and Headspace app offer exercises. Calm offers 10-minute sessions for people short on time, while Headspace offers more variety in fitness training, with some exercises facilitated by Olympians.

Using mindfulness apps

As you can see, these apps recognize the health benefits of mindfulness, meditation, restful sleep, and fitness. Both apps also take into account people’s limited availability for these self-care practices and aim to meet people where they are at – acknowledging that even small bursts of mindful practices can lead to enormous benefits.

Pros of using the Calm app for Mindfulness and Meditation

  • 2-week free trial, then $5.83/month billed annually at $69.99
  • Family plan for up to 6 people, $99.99/year
  • Reminders to meditate, relax, and de-stress
  • Meditations for children and teens, 3-17
  • Easy to use for meditation beginners
  • Large collection of peaceful music and low-tempo remixes of popular songs
  • Daily check-in feature, allowing you to track your mood and progress
  • 3, 5, 10, 15, 20, or 25 minute meditations
  • New 10-minute meditations daily
  • 30-day “how-to” program for beginners
  • 7 and 21-day programs serving beginner to advanced meditators
  • Large variety of mindfulness topics and masterclasses
  • Daily Calm mindfulness quotes intended to inspire
  • Offers both guided and unguided meditations
  • Customer reviews gave Calm 4.8 stars  

Cons of using the Calm app for Mindfulness and Meditation

  • It is difficult to reach customer service
  • It is difficult to cancel a subscription
  • You cannot search meditations by theme or length
  • Many meditations are narrated by American mindfulness instructor, Tamara Levitt (so if you do not like the sound of her voice, you may have trouble relaxing) 
  • There isn’t too much guidance to help users decide which meditations may be best for them
  • Some reviewers say the meditations feel too much alike and difficult to distinguish

Pros of using the Headspace app for Mindfulness and Meditation

  • 2-week free trial, then $5.83/month, billed at $69.99/year
  • Monthly billing option of $12.99/month
  • Headspace offers students with a valid school ID an 85% discount
  • There is more guidance in choosing meditations, which can be helpful for beginners, or for those who feel like making more decisions can be overwhelming
  • 10-day basics of meditation course
  • 30-day courses on various mindfulness topics such as managing anxiety and cultivating creativity
  • Meditations can range from 3 minutes to 120 minutes
  • Easy to navigate
  • Customers can track their progress
  • Users can search meditations by theme or length
  • Meditations available for kids age 5-12
  • Headspace features notifications to help establish a daily practice
  • Offers guided and unguided meditations
  • SOS application which helps to manage intense anxiety 
  • Customer reviews give Headspace 4.9 stars

Cons of using the Headspace app for Mindfulness and Meditation

  • Geared towards beginners, so intermediate or advanced meditators may not feel fulfilled
  • Difficult to cancel a subscription
  • Many meditations are led by the English former monk, Andy Puddicombe, so if you do not find his voice relaxing, you may have limited choices

Calm app Features for Restful Sleep

  • 100 sleep stories for kids and adults read by celebrities like Matthew McConaughey
  • Breathing exercises geared towards a restful night
  • Soundscapes such as crickets, campfire, rain
  • 30 plus soothing nature sounds and scenes
  • Sleep stories may be too long for some users, while others may prefer to sleep to background noise throughout the night

Headspace app Features for Restful Sleep

  • Calming stories paired with relaxing music
  • Soothing music and nature sounds
  • They offer a “wake-up” series to start the day off right

Calm app Features for Fitness

  • A variety of 10-minute sessions of mindful movement and stretching

Headspace app Features for Fitness

  • 28 days of fitness course
  • Movement for stress relief and reducing tension
  • Fitness training with guidance from Olympians
  • Yoga, mindful cardio, and quick workouts

Calm app Features for Focus

  • 7 days and 7 steps meditation series for increasing focus

Headspace app Features for Focus

  • 12 music stations intended to help you focus
  • 23 ambient soundscapes for focusing
  • A John Legend curated playlist for focusing

Conclusion

There are a lot of similarities between the two apps, with both offering services for beginners, intermediate, and advanced users. Since price points are similar, along with free trial offers, the choice truly comes down to personal preference. YouTube offers short snippets of both Calm and Headspace meditations, so you can sample both prior to purchasing. If fitness is your deciding factor, Headspace may offer more options and variety.

Both apps are valuable and effective at reducing stress, creating mindfulness, enhancing sleep quality, and more. Even if you only use the app occasionally, you can use it anywhere and at any time, allowing you greater opportunities to practice self-care. Both the Calm and Headspace app are great tools for anyone looking to add a little more mindfulness to their lives.

Lauren Reynolds - Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
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