With chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease on the rise, healthcare providers are now more than ever looking for effective methods to both treat and prevent illness, as well as improve their patients’ quality of life. In the past, providers may have been hesitant to recommend alternative treatments like yoga and meditation because of the lack of strong empirical evidence. However, more studies are confirming what many yogis already know to be true–that a regular yoga and meditation practice reduces stress, which improves health. In fact, a recent US study found that adding yoga and meditation to the patient’s treatment plan resulted in decreased visits to the doctor.
Researchers at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston studied the doctor visits of over 4,400 patients referred to a relaxation response training program. The program taught participants not only yoga poses, but mediation and prayer techniques as well. Compared to the year before the relaxation training, participants experienced a 43 percent reduction in overall healthcare use the year following the program. Researchers also followed 13,000 similar patients who did not undergo relaxation training. This group had little changes to their healthcare usage. Following their training, study participants decreased their doctor visits by 42 percent, lab use by 44 percent and schedule procedures by 21 percent.
In an age of healthcare reform, significantly reducing healthcare usage with a low-cost, noninvasive treatment is impressive. Because researchers focused on visits, rather than patient outcomes like mortality, it is impossible to know if yoga actually reduces overall healthcare costs. Future studies could build off this data to examine the cost of care and long-term outcomes.
While this study did not look at patient outcomes, others have. Researchers in India recently studied the effects of adding a regular yoga practice among patients with Type 2 Diabetes. Participants were randomly placed in the yoga group or a controlled walking group. After just eight weeks, the study participants in the yoga group had significantly greater reductions in weight, waist circumference and body mass index (BMI) than the walkers. While there was no difference in fasting blood glucose, the yoga group did report significant reductions in blood pressure, cholesterol, anxiety, depression and negative effect. These results are promising for the future of not only diabetes treatment, but all chronic conditions, including mental health.
In fact, healthcare systems across the US offer yoga programs to both patients and their employees. The Cleveland Clinic has offered yoga classes since 2006 and in 2012 hired a full-time Yoga Program Manager at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute.
While more studies are needed, particularly those focusing on long-term outcomes, the preliminary data certainly points to yoga and meditation serving a valuable role in controlling and even preventing chronic diseases. Considering the fact that no medication or procedure are without risk or side effects, yoga is a low-cost and safe intervention that any patient could benefit from.