Mindfulness and medicine are increasingly interconnected: Physicians suggest that meditation may combat a range of ailments, from chronic pain to the common cold. Simultaneously, yoga’s popularity has grown substantially, with promising research suggesting it may mitigate a number of health risks and illnesses. Yet, beneath this growing enthusiasm, some experts express cynicism about the impacts of these practices. Are yoga and meditation actually transformative, or tools of a multibillion-dollar mindfulness industry peddling unsubstantiated promises of wellness?
We decided to study various health indicators of Americans who do yoga and meditation, comparing their wellness statistics to those of people who don’t practice these techniques. To perform this analysis, we utilized data from the 2017 National Health Interview Survey, an annual study produced by the CDC. While our findings do not indicate causation, they suggest compelling connections between these practices and various illnesses. Just how healthy are people who practice yoga and meditation relative to the rest of the population? Keep reading to find out.
Yoga and Meditation: Practice Demographics
Mindfulness has attracted considerable buzz in recent years, but what percentage of Americans actually meditate or do yoga with any frequency? Fourteen percent of individuals reported practicing yoga in some form, while just 6 percent said they meditated. Women were significantly more likely to embrace yoga and meditation than their male peers, likely reflecting entrenched, gendered notions of these practices. Many men perceive yoga as a feminine form of exercise, overlooking its valuable health benefits. Concerning meditation, men are less likely to seek help for mental health challenges; as a result, they may not encounter mindfulness solutions as often.
Age seemed inversely correlated with yoga and meditation practices: Baby boomers were less likely to engage in these techniques than Gen Xers, who were less likely to practice than millennials in turn. Indeed, millennial enthusiasm for these practices has fueled the rise of mindfulness and self-care apps, which appeal to this smartphone-dependent generation. Rates of yoga and meditation practice also varied on a geographical basis, with the West surpassing any other region. Certain West Coast cultural centers are particular hotbeds for these practices: In Silicon Valley, for example, meditation is very much in vogue.
Millennial women from the West were the demographic most devoted to meditating and doing yoga overall. But while millennial women from other regions took second and third place for yoga practice, meditation enthusiasm adhered to a more regional trend. Among Gen X and baby boomer women residing in the West, more than 1 in 10 practiced meditation. Older women in the West may be on to something: Experts suggest mindfulness can help mitigate mental health challenges associated with growing older.
In general terms, relatively few Americans feel their health is moving in the right direction: Overall, only about 1 in 5 said their health was better than the year prior. The rate was somewhat higher among those making healthy choices, such as exercising more often or eating better. Yet, our findings were even more encouraging for those practicing yoga, meditation, or both. For example, nearly a third of individuals who meditated and did yoga claimed their health was better than the previous year. Of course, these statistics may reflect a “placebo effect” resulting from engaging in yoga and meditation. Still, these findings imply that the practices have significant subjective benefits.
Moreover, yoga and a combination of yoga and meditation seemed to correlate with improved BMI scores relative to those who engaged in neither practice. Those who practiced yoga (with or without meditation) had average BMIs in the “overweight” range, whereas people who did not typically belonged to the “obese” category. The correlation between yoga practice and more desirable BMI scores held true for both men and women – and across age groups. While weight loss isn’t understood as one of yoga’s primary benefits, experts say consistent practice can help individuals shed pounds and even encourage mindful eating.
Sickness vs. Self-Care
Physical ailments were most common among those who meditated without an accompanying yoga practice, followed by those who did neither. Interestingly, those who practiced meditation and yoga in combination were more likely to have a physical ailment than individuals who did yoga alone. This apparent connection between meditation and medical issues may reflect the increasing use of mindfulness techniques to address health concerns. Meditation has been used to alleviate uncomfortable symptoms resulting from cancer treatment, for example, and even to lower blood pressure in some cases. Accordingly, those with a chronic illness may have more reason to adopt a meditation practice.
Some diseases, however, were most prevalent among individuals who practiced neither meditation nor yoga. Among those who abstained from both techniques, 29 percent had hypertension, for example. Yoga devotees seemed far more fortunate: Concerning cancer, heart problems, and hypertension, people who practiced yoga (with or without meditation), had half the rate of disease as those who did neither. Additionally, doctors often recommend yoga practice as a complement to conventional medical treatment for these illnesses, although some patients may need to modify or avoid certain poses to reflect their individual needs.
Yoga’s Employment Impacts
Could yoga help prevent illness or injury, allowing individuals to miss fewer days of work as a result? In a number of fields, workers who practiced yoga were far less prone to absenteeism. Arts, entertainment, and recreation professionals who did yoga missed just five days per year due to illness, on average, while their colleagues who did not do yoga typically missed eight days annually. Findings like these have led many companies to offer yoga classes to their workforce to boost morale and productivity.
In some industries, however, workers who practiced yoga missed as many days as those who did not – or even more in some cases. In construction, for example, yoga participants and other workers both missed eight days per year on average. This finding could be attributable to the top causes of injury in that industry: Yoga won’t reduce the severity of a serious fall or an accident involving heavy machinery. In the administrative and support and waste management and remediation services industry, yoga participants missed three more days each year, on average. Perhaps, in this case, workers have sought yoga as a solution to existing injuries.
Missed Work vs. Meditation
If yoga practice generally correlates with superior work attendance, do meditators miss fewer days as well? The answer varies tremendously by industry. In manufacturing, for example, meditators missed merely three days a year on average, compared to eight days per year for other workers in that field. Meditators in health care and accommodation and food services also missed fewer days annually than their non-meditating peers. These data points would seem to reinforce the increasingly popular view that meditation can pay great dividends in business by reducing stress and boosting resilience.
Yet, in several other fields, such as finance and insurance and public administration, professionals who practiced meditation missed far more days each year than their non-meditating colleagues. This trend may indirectly reflect the effects of chronic illness. Meditation is often recommended to patients with recurring pain, and those with serious injuries or ailments would also be more likely to miss work. Another explanation may lie in attitudes toward self-care: Perhaps meditators in these fields are more sensitive to their needs when ill or injured and use their sick days accordingly.
Turning to another important dimension of well-being, many researchers suggest that yoga and meditation may mitigate common mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety. Yet, our findings suggest that emotional challenges are equally prevalent among those who practice yoga and those who do not. Moreover, people who practice meditation (alone or in addition to yoga) were substantially more likely than others to contend with depression, anxiety, or some other emotional problem. Nearly 1 in 10 people who practiced meditation alone reported one or more of these mental health issues.
Meditation practice also correlated strongly with specific kinds of negative feelings. Nearly 27 percent of individuals who practiced only meditation and 22 percent who did meditation and yoga said they had felt hopeless within the last 30 days. And an even larger segment of meditators felt unable to cheer up at least once during that period. However, these statistics may actually attest to a positive trend: Perhaps individuals with these sentiments are using meditation to feel better. Some experts say the rise of mindfulness apps has been particularly helpful in this regard, making meditation more accessible than ever to those struggling with emotional challenges.
Meditation has long been used to support better sleep, and some research suggests that particular yoga poses can improve the quality and quantity of the rest people get. In our analysis, however, only minor differences emerged between those who practiced yoga and meditation and those who did neither. Each cohort got approximately seven hours of sleep nightly, the minimum adults need according to authorities.
Yet, if total sleep times varied little, those who practiced meditation and yoga did report more difficulty falling and staying asleep. This finding may seem counterintuitive in some respects, as mindfulness-based techniques have been proven to help treat insomnia. But perhaps in this case as well, meditators and yoga enthusiasts have adopted these practices to treat a pre-existing problem. For example, over half of the individuals who practiced meditation alone reported some trouble dozing off and staying asleep, but perhaps they’d struggle more without meditating before bed.
Your Own Path to Mindful Practices
Our findings present compelling correlations between yoga and meditation and desirable health indicators. In some cases, our results also suggest that people living with chronic illnesses and mental health challenges may be adopting these techniques to mitigate their symptoms and move toward well-being. Health data can prove quite complex, and we caution against drawing sweeping conclusions about yoga or meditation’s effects. But these practices pose few health risks, and many devotees report meaningful benefits. So if you’re looking to expand your self-care routine, why not give each of these mindful techniques a try?
If yoga and meditation don’t seem quite your speed, perhaps you’ll find alternative forms of physical and personal enrichment appealing. While mindfulness techniques have drawn much attention in recent years, there are endless varieties of exercise and spiritual nourishment to explore. If you’re ready to embark on your individualized journey toward improved well-being, talk to your doctor today. Once you’re equipped with a clear sense of your health priorities, you’ll be ready to experiment.
We collected data from the CDC’s 2017 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) Sample Adult file to create our visualizations. The survey comprised of 26,742 adults across the United States. We focused our study on the respondents who practiced yoga and those who practiced meditation and compared them to those who didn’t practice either yoga or meditation. There were various types of meditation options included in the NHIS data set. For our purposes, we used “mindfulness meditation” for this entire project. In our data analysis, we created a combined field of yoga participation and meditation participation questions. This allowed us to isolate the respondents who did neither yoga nor meditation, the ones who did meditation only, the ones who did yoga only, and the ones who did both yoga and meditation. When looking at the physical ailments, respondents had the choice to say if their condition was chronic or not chronic. We combined both of those responses to get an overall percentage of the people with each ailment. We grouped respondents into generations based on their ages. Our findings are not attempting to make any claims of causation. We are simply pointing out the correlations between healthy lifestyle habits and other various health aspects.
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