Regular meditation more beneficial than vacation

Monique Tello, MD, MPH
Monique Tello, MD, MPH, Contributing Editor

As mindfulness meditation and yoga have become mainstream and more extensively studied, growing evidence suggests multiple psychological and physical benefits of these mindfulness exercises, as well as for similar practices like tai chi and qi gong.

Systematic reviews and meta-analyses analyzing hundreds of research studies suggest that mindfulness-based interventions help decrease anxiety, depression, stress, and pain, and help improve general health, mental health, and quality of life. These practices also appear to reduce inflammation and increase immune response.

You say vacation, I say meditation…

As much as this intuitively makes sense, I’ve often wondered if simple rest and relaxation could be just as good for you. The few studies conducted suggest that vacation does result in real, albeit temporary, positive effects on health and well-being.

So when the editors at Harvard Health Publications suggested I take a look at a recent study comparing a mindfulness meditation and yoga retreat to regular vacation in terms of mental health as well as physical health outcomes, I agreed. This is interesting stuff.

The study was conducted at a resort in Southern California with 91 female volunteers who had no major health problems, were not pregnant, nor taking hormones or antidepressants. The mindfulness intervention was an established meditation and yoga retreat consisting of 12 hours of meditation, nine hours of yoga, and self-reflective exercises over a week. The participants were divided into three groups of about 30 each: experienced meditators, women who had never meditated, and a group who simply “went on vacation.” The 30 “vacation participants” listened to health lectures and then did fun outdoor things for a week.

At the end, all three groups (vacation, novice, and regular meditators) showed statistically significant improvements in scores of stress and depression, which were measured using well-established and commonly used questionnaires. If we stop there, it seems that vacation is just as good as mindfulness exercises for stress reduction and mood lifting.

But what’s really striking are the result from 10 months later: the regular meditators still showed significant improvements on these scores, the novice meditators even more so. However, the vacationers were back to baseline. The researchers had ensured that all three groups were equal in average age, education level, employment status, and body mass index. This finding is in keeping with prior research showing that vacation has beneficial but very temporary effects, and that mindfulness therapies have sustained beneficial effects.

What about long-term physical benefits of meditation?

These researchers also took blood samples just before and after the weeklong study period. All three groups showed significant positive changes in the markers of immune function. However, regular meditators also showed additional, more interesting changes. I got in touch with study author Eric Schadt, Ph.D., director of the Icahn Institute at Mount Sinai, who offered this interpretation of the data:

“Regular meditators showed both the same types of ‘improvements’ at the molecular level as the others, but on top of that exhibited changes that were also associated with some aging/disease processes that also correlated with biomarkers of aging in a favorable direction. I think there is some suggestion there of improved healthy aging, so hopefully that motivates further study in this direction.”

He went on to explain that other factors that often go hand in hand with meditation (for example, exercise, diet, even exposure to incense) could help explain these improvements. “So that as well remains to be more fully resolved in future studies.”

The vacation study was fairly small and included only women, and the authors point out that more research in this area is needed. But the evidence that mindfulness exercises can result in long-lasting positive psychological effects, especially for people new to these experiences, is compelling. In addition, meditation and yoga can boost immunity, and regular practice seems to promote more complex genetic effects related to healthier aging.

Comments:

  1. maisie

    Agree with you…… i am part of yoga retreats centre. i have seen people come for yoga retreats mostly during vacations only…they learn to meditate and feel stress free. But again when vacations are over, they donot regularly do the meditation and yoga. Waiting for next vacations to come and then only in yoga retreats centre they will start doing yoga & meditation. I always suggest to everybody to do meditation on regular basis for long term benefits.

  2. Buchard Albert

    At least two bias:
    – They all went on vacation
    – They did exercice / yoga

    A better design would be meditation everyday while working (no vacation) vs going on vacation.

  3. S b

    The mediators presumably continued meditating, (+ yoga, good eating, relationships),..howevever, the vacationers did not continue vacationing for the next 10 months!!!

  4. Henry Huta

    As an owner of The Ancient Wisdom of Yoga, a yoga studio where we also teach meditation, provide massage therapy, craniosacral therapy, and acupuncture, and as a PhD candidate at Grand Canyon University writing my dissertation, it would be helpful to me and many others for the inclusion of the APA citations for the studies referenced in your articles. Perhaps you could consider this as a policy going forward. I appreciate the opportunity of making a comment and for your consideration of my suggestion. I also understand if this may not be possible, Namaste, Henry.

    • Monique Tello, MD, MPH
      Monique Tello, MD, MPH

      Absolutely- there is supposed to be a link to this article in the text above, but I do not see it. I’ll send a note to the editor, meantime, here is the citation off PubMed:
      Meditation and vacation effects have an impact on disease-associated molecular phenotypes. Epel ES, Puterman E, Lin J, Blackburn EH, Lum PY, Beckmann ND, Zhu J, Lee E, Gilbert A, Rissman RA, Tanzi RE, Schadt EE.
      Transl Psychiatry. 2016 Aug 30;6(8):e880. doi: 10.1038/tp.2016.164

  5. Carl Erikson

    I have been involved in mind/body research and practice since 1977, including at Johns Hopkins. I have been recommending meditation and mindfulness to my psychotherapy practice clients for almost 4 decades. Often it is helpful to have some instruction for meditation. I usually suggest they work with the meditations by Jon Shore. I like to recommend them because they work. For whatever purpose one decides to explore or pursue meditation it will prove to be beneficial in many ways. One can argue all day about the effectiveness of meditation or mindfulness or one can try it and see for oneself. I usually recommend the second option.

  6. ricke

    Did the novice meditators continue the mindfulness practices after the study was over? If so, would the continuing mindfulness practices explain the lasting benefits?

  7. Shailla

    As a burnt out Physician and a yogi/Meditator, I would say do both! we all need to take a break and enjoy life, and the long term benefits of meditation are proven so it’s nit one or the other but both!

    • Monique Tello, MD, MPH
      Monique Tello, MD, MPH

      Yes, and I was thinking how great it would be to be a subject for a study like this… A week in a resort with yoga and meditation in addition to beaches etc. !

  8. Barney Cazort

    Citation: Translational Psychiatry (2016) 6, e880; doi:10.1038/tp.2016.164
    Published online 30 August 2016

    Meditation and vacation effects have an impact on disease-associated molecular phenotypes
    OPEN

    E S Epel1, E Puterman1, J Lin2, E H Blackburn2, P Y Lum3, N D Beckmann4, J Zhu4, E Lee4, A Gilbert1, R A Rissman5, R E Tanzi6 and E E Schadt4

  9. A. Jeria

    Do You have the reference of this study?
    Greetings,
    A. JERIA, MD, MSc

    • Barney Cazort

      Meditation and vacation effects have an impact on disease-associated molecular phenotypes
      OPEN

      E S Epel1, E Puterman1, J Lin2, E H Blackburn2, P Y Lum3, N D Beckmann4, J Zhu4, E Lee4, A Gilbert1, R A Rissman5, R E Tanzi6 and E E Schadt4

      Citation: Translational Psychiatry (2016) 6, e880; doi:10.1038/tp.2016.164
      Published online 30 August 2016