Study: Meditation and yoga dramatically cut our need for health care services

Living a healthier life doesn’t have to be hard. That’s the conclusion of a new study, which found that using relaxation techniques such as meditation and yoga can reduce the number of hospital visits you might need.

The explanation is simple. Though stress-related illnesses won’t usually kill you outright, the damage they do accumulates over time. Those who suffer from them visit hospitals a lot more than others. By one estimate, these people comprise 70% of doctors’ caseloads.

Relaxation techniques range from the age-old (such as yoga or tai-chi) to the new-age (such as mindfulness therapy), and they have a lot in common. The theory is that the relaxation response they elicit relieves stress and anxiety.

The trouble, however, is that, unlike drugs, it’s not always easy to measure the impact of relaxation techniques. And for doctors to prescribe such techniques as medical treatment, evidence is necessary. To find that evidence, researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital conducted a retrospective analysis.

They looked at the records of some 4,000 people between 2006 and 2014 who followed doctors’ recommendations for relaxation techniques, and compared them to some 13,000 others whose doctors made no such recommendations. After controlling for factors such as demography and types of illnesses, they concluded that those who applied relaxation therapies saw a 43% reduction in “resource utilization” at hospitals, compared to those in the control group.

So those who practiced relaxation techniques made fewer visits to hospitals, were ordered to undergo fewer medical tests, and didn’t end up in emergency care as often. The study’s results were published in PLOS One.

There are limitations to the study. Although the sample size is large and the patients were tracked over many years, the analysis is a retrospective one. Thus, it is possible that there were some biases involved in how the data was collected and analyzed. Also, all those involved were treated at just one hospital, and more studies are needed to assess whether the effect holds at other hospitals in the US and outside.

Still, given that these relaxation techniques cost little and pose almost no risk, any evidence for their potential to improve public health strengthens their case for policymakers. And for individuals, you don’t have to wait till they become a routine part of healthcare. You can start your relaxation regime now.

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