Lifestyle changes play a big role in determining our future health, and the first two we immediately think of are diet and exercise. While these are crucial to our health, a big aspect that isn’t discussed as much is mental health — and similarly, using relaxation techniques to set the stage for better health later down the road.

In a new study out of the Institute for Technology Assessment and the Benson-Henry Institute (BHI) for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, researchers found that people who took part in a relaxation response program used fewer health care services a year later, compared to their use a year before. It proves that learning how to relax — though often not a priority in our busy lives — can be as beneficial to our future health as exercise.

The Relaxation Response

Stress is ultimately rooted in our fight-or-flight response, a survival mechanism that helps us avoid dangers by producing a lot of adrenaline, making our hearts race and muscles tense. The fight-or-flight response develops in response to life-threatening situations, but many times it’s activated by things that aren’t so life-threatening: like job stress, spilled coffee, or a packed train on the way to work. An accumulation of the stress hormones released by repeated activation of the fight-or-flight response leads to detrimental health effects and chronic stress, from high blood pressure and depression to heart disease.

That’s why Dr. Herbert Benson, founder and director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute and an author of the newest study, developed what’s known as the “relaxation response” 40 years ago. The essence of the response is to overturn the effects of the fight-or-flight response by focusing on deep breathing, meditation, mindfulness, and prayer to lower blood pressure, breathe more slowly, and reduce muscle tension.

The study employed Benson’s relaxation response, referring to it as the “physiologic opposite” of the fight-or-flight response. The researchers used data on people who participated in the BHI Relaxation Response Resiliency Program from 2006 to 2014, which helps people cope with stress using the relaxation response, social support, cognitive skills training, and positive psychology. They then measured their use of health services — including interactions with any health care providers, imaging studies, lab tests, and procedures — before and after their time participating in the relaxation response program. The participants saw an average reduction of 43 percent in their use of health care services in the year after they participated in the program. Relaxation served as a protective feature against future health problems.

“Our study’s primary finding is that programs that train patients to elicit the relaxation response — specifically those taught at the BHI — can also dramatically reduce health care utilization,” Dr. James Stahl, lead author of the study, said in the press release. “These programs promote wellness and, in our environment of constrained health care resources, could potentially ease the burden on our health delivery systems at minimal cost and at no real risk.”

Relaxation As Preventive Care

The authors conclude that relaxation techniques — which can range from Benson’s training program to more individual practices, like meditation and yoga — are an excellent form of natural preventive care.

“I think of it this way; there are many gates to wellness, but not everyone is ready to walk through a particular gate at a given time,” Stahl continued in the press release. “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.”

Source: Stahl J, Benson H, Dossett M, Denninger J, Mehta D, Goldman R. PLOS ONE. 2015.