Yoga and meditation can be great ways to relax and quiet the mind, and a growing body of research has shown that these mindfulness practices may even be effective for treating physical and mental health problems ranging from heart disease to depression.
But the benefits don't stop there. Mind-body practices may also keep you away from the hospital, according to a study by researchers at Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, and recently published in the journal PLOS One.
"These practices can ... decrease the anxiety associated with many health conditions, lead to improved self-awareness, and may enhance other self-care behaviors," Dr. Michelle Dossett, a physician and researcher at the Benson-Henry Institute and one of the study's authors, told The Huffington Post in an email. "These practices can decrease a wide range of stress-related symptoms and medical conditions."
For the study, the researchers analyzed 4,000 records from patients, taken between 2006 and 2014, who followed a doctor's recommendation to use relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga and Tai Chi as an adjunct therapy for a stress-related health problem. They also studied the records of 13,000 patients whose doctors did not make these recommendations.
Their analysis revealed that people who used relaxation techniques were 43 percent less likely to visit the hospital, be ordered a medical test by their doctor and to need emergency care, compared to those who did not use the practices.
After crunching the numbers, the researchers found that mind-body practices resulted in annual health care savings of $2,360 per patient, based on reduced emergency room visits alone.
"We live in a society in which stress and stress-related health conditions are rampant and medical costs are soaring," Dossett said. "Mind-body interventions are minimal risk, low cost, and have the potential for benefiting individuals with a range of health problems."
"Wider availability of these services has the potential to benefit public health and to help curb the rising costs of healthcare," she added.
Yoga and meditation, which trigger the body's relaxation response and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, seem to prevent hospital visits due to stress-related health problems, which account for between 75 and 90 percent of all doctor's visits.
More research is needed to confirm these results and demonstrate this effect in other settings. But for now, the findings offer reason to be optimistic about mindfulness as a low-cost, low-risk intervention for improving individual health and reducing public spending on health care.
"Mind-body medicine interventions are inexpensive relative to the cost of an emergency room visit, a hospitalization or even other complementary and alternative medicine therapies," the study's authors wrote, estimating overall annual savings --taking into account the costs of hospital and doctor visits, and medical tests -- of up to $25,000 per patient.
Many patients already seem to be aware of these benefits. According to the National Institutes of Health, 9.5 of Americans have practiced yoga and roughly 8 percent meditate.
"For people who practice methods like relaxation, meditation or mindfulness, the results aren’t surprising at all," Dr. Scott LaJoie, an associate professor of behavioral sciences at the University of Louisville and one of the study's authors, told HuffPost in an email. "But as a professor in public health, I think these reductions in health costs are very exciting. Very few public health interventions have been shown to be so cost saving."
A next step is devising public health interventions to make mind-body medicine more accessible to a larger subset of the population. In the meantime, anyone can employ relaxation techniques on their own to prevent disease and improve well-being.
"By learning to control our busy thoughts, to find moments of quiet, to become resilient to stressors, we can improve our health and well-being," LaJoie said.
Medical experts are hopeful, saying that increasing research on the role of lifestyle factors in preventing and treating disease is part of an exciting shift towards a more prevention-based medical model.
"We tend to think of advances in medicine as something very new and high-tech and expensive," Dean Ornish, president of the Preventative Medicine Research Institute, told HuffPost last year. "But what we've been able to show with over three decades of research is that ... lifestyle changes, which is including yoga and meditation, can not only prevent but reverse chronic diseases."