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.

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