Research Says the Relaxation Response Could Keep You Out of the Hospital

A Mass General study found that patients who do yoga, meditation, and other activities were less likely to seek medical attention.

The relaxation response—a state of deep rest brought on by activities like yoga, meditation, and prayer first described by Harvard Medical School’s Herbert Benson—won’t only help you unwind from a long day at the office. A new study from Massachusetts General Hospital says it could keep you out of the hospital or doctor’s office.

The study, completed by Mass General’s Institute for Technology Assessment and Benson-Henry Institute (BHI) for Mind Body Medicine, examined a group of 4,400 patients enrolled in BHI’s Relaxation Response Resiliency Program, which combines relaxation response activities with social support and mental health training. Over two years, they compared those patients with 13,150 people who did not participate the BHI program to see which group had more “healthcare encounters,” including things like procedures, lab tests, and visits to doctors.

The researchers founds that BHI patients—those who were regularly eliciting the relaxation response—had a 43 percent decrease in their use of healthcare resources in the year after participation, while the control group had little change. Patients with neurologic, cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, and gastrointestinal issues experienced the most dramatic reductions.

While some BHI patients likely sought medical care more often than their peers before entering the program, the study still shows how much of an impact the relaxation response can have. The study’s leader, James Stahl, said in a statement that mind body exercises should be incorporated into routine medical care:

“From a public health perspective, it is better to be prepared to offer these tools to people in their customary settings than to wait for them to seek out these interventions. For that reason, we feel that mind body interventions – which are both low-cost and essentially risk-free – should perhaps be incorporated into regular preventive care.”

Mass General’s is hardly the first study to point to serious benefits from the relaxation response. Recent research has suggested that kids could benefit from yoga and other alternative therapies in school, and meditation and yoga have been linked to everything from easing depression to increasing compassion.