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Study: Meditation and Exercise Could Save Billions

Madison, Wisconsin - The U.S. health care system and nation’s employers might save billions of dollars annually in sick days and medical costs from acute respiratory infections (ARI) such as colds and flu, if more people hit the treadmill or took meditation courses.


That’s according to the results of a University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health study published this month in Family Practice, affiliated with the Oxford University Press.


The eight-week intervention involved 149 participants randomly assigned to three groups: one took a course in meditation; another was involved in an exercise program; and a third (control group) engaged in neither activity.


Most participants were Caucasian women around 60 years old, overweight and non-smokers, and none of them were actively involved in an exercise or meditation program.


According to lead author Dr. David Rakel, a family-medicine physician and associate professor at UW, the meditation group missed 16 days of work and the average cost per person for sick days, medicine, and clinical visits during the eight-week period was $65.  The exercise group missed 32 work days at a cost of $136 each, while the control group called in sick 67 days for a cost of $216 per person. 


“With the national push to bring more value to health-care delivery, we wanted to show how a non-pharmaceutical approach can have a tremendous savings while also being known to have a positive effect on other aspects of health and causing very little harm,” Rakel said.


Rakel added the meditation group reported more episodes of ARI than the exercise group, but the meditation group still missed fewer days of work than those who exercised.


“This is what I found most surprising - that a mind-body technique that mainly focuses on reducing the perception of stress could have such a significant impact on cost, ARI incidence, and severity,” he said.

A 2003 University of Michigan study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimated that medical fees and lost productivity caused by employees calling in sick due to colds or flu cost $40 billion annually.  


Using an extrapolation based on this study, Rakel said $28 billion would be saved annually if more people meditated.  Separately, the use of exercise programs by the nation’s workers would save $14 billion.  He said these dollar amounts were calculated by using the percentage cost savings of the meditation and exercise group compared to the control group.


“This cost savings does not include the cost of the intervention, but we thought that the health benefits extended beyond the results of one ARI season, and didn’t feel that including it would give an accurate description,” Rakel said.  “But that shouldn’t take away from the significant savings seen with these interventions through reduced work absences and reduced incidence and severity of ARI.”


“We were surprised to see that the biggest financial savings was keeping people at work,” Rakel added.  “The cost of medicines was rather minor compared to keeping people engaged in their productive pursuits.”


A number of businesses already offer wellness programs to employees in an effort to keep them healthy, but Rakel said more needs to be done.


“We have to work with those organizations that have the most to gain in keeping people healthy and productive,” he said.  “These are businesses who not only want to reduce health care costs, but also have creative, resilient employees.  Businesses are starting to invest more in healthy lifestyle choices such as access to good nutrition, exercise, and mindfulness classes.”


“These results show that we have to get out of the mindset that more technology and medicine is needed to improve health care,” Rakel added.  “These lifestyle skills are probably much more valuable in reducing disease burden.  Health is not so much about what you take, but more about what you do.”


The study comes on the heels of research completed last year by UW family-medicine physician Dr. Bruce Barrett, who concluded that meditation and exercise can help reduce instances of cold and flu. 

Date Published: 05/14/2013

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Study: Meditation and Exercise Could Save Billions

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