Today, the inaugural Yoga in Healthcare Conference is taking place at the University of Westminster in London. Bringing together pioneers from the worlds of health, government and yoga, we’ll be discussing how the integration of yoga into the NHS could improve the health and wellbeing of the public, as well as healthcare employees.

One of the key questions we shall explore is whether yoga can be applied in our healthcare services to ease the burden of chronic conditions in our society. Helping to prevent and manage issues such as Type 2 Diabetes, heart disease and obesity is going to be a pivotal task for our health services over the next few decades – and here at The Minded Institute, we believe that yoga can be a part of the solution to these growing public health concerns.

Yoga offers a way for people to support and promote their physical and mental resilience. Whether it’s helping people remain active as they age, offering an adjunct therapy for a variety of mental health issues or simply being a way in which people can manage their stress levels, yoga’s impact on health can be profound.

But before we examine further how yoga can help to ease the burden of chronic conditions in the UK, let’s consider the nature and risk factors of noncommunicable disease.

The rise of chronic conditions

“The burden of chronic diseases is rapidly increasing worldwide. It has been calculated that, in 2001, chronic diseases contributed approximately 60% of the 56.5 million total reported deaths in the world and approximately 46% of the global burden of disease. The proportion of the burden of NCDs is expected to increase to 57% by 2020.”

The World Health Organisation.

The extraordinary efforts of doctors and scientists – and major breakthroughs such as vaccinations and antibiotics – mean that infectious diseases are no longer as deadly as they once were. But as the major threats to public health in the nineteenth and twentieth century were surmounted, new challenges have emerged.

Also known as “noncommunicable diseases” and, in certain cases, “lifestyle diseases”, the term chronic condition refers to an ongoing illness which requires management over the long term. Some can be attributed to our lifestyles, (although it appears that some people have higher genetic risk of developing certain issues) while for the cause of others is less clear.

For example, the development of chronic autoimmune disorders such as Lupus are still far from understood. We have also seen increases in the prevalence of allergies and asthma – a problem we have yet to move beyond hypothesis in explaining.

Researchers from Cambridge University, in a four year study of over 400,000 individuals, found that a quarter of adults in England are affected by multiple health issues. High blood pressure was the most common, while one in ten suffered with depression or anxiety, and another one in ten lived with chronic pain. The researchers concluded, given rising rates of obesity, the occurrence of one of more health issues in adults was likely to increase.

While not the only cause, lifestyle factors (such as smoking, lack of exercise and chronic stress) are associated with the development of many illnesses, such as:

  • Hypertension
  • Heart Disease
  • Chronic Liver Disease
  • Certain cancers (for example, smoking-related lung cancer)
  • COPD
  • Arteriosclerosis
  • Type 2 Diabetes

An NHS health survey in 2016 found that 31% of men and 16% of women usually drank at increased or higher risk of harm, 20% of men and 16% of women were current smokers, while 26% of men and 27% of women were obese. Men and women living in more deprived areas had lower well-being scores, on average, than those living in less deprived areas. Furthermore, 48 per cent of adults had taken at least one prescribed medicine in the last week, and almost a quarter, 24 per cent, had taken three or more.

The perception of lifestyle-related diseases

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the prevalence of chronic conditions is often described as a looming health crisis, and this subject is a regular feature in the media. Due to the nature of lifestyle diseases, the public debate is often emotive and sometimes defined tone of judgement (for example, describing people as a potential “drain on the NHS”).

However, it would be wrong to work on the assumption that solving lifestyle disease was a moral question, where people should apply willpower and become less “greedy” or “lazy” for the good of the nation. Stigma stops us looking for helpful solutions, and also can have real impact on public sympathy – a phenomenon that’s evident in the fact that lung cancer research receives less funding than other less deadly cancers .

In the UK, heart disease is leading cause of death for men (and second leading cause of death for women) and 62% of us are overweight. This isn’t an issue exclusive to an irresponsible few, it’s a health problem which affects the majority of us – a near inevitable outcome in a society where sedentary work, processed food, lack of free time and high stress make it very difficult for people to make positive health choices.

Life expectancy and quality of life.

The leading cause of death for women is another manageable, if progressive, disease; Alzheimer’s and dementia. Rates of Alzheimer’s and dementia have been steadily increasing for both genders, and this is due mainly to the fact that people are living longer. The average age for developing dementia is eighty, and there are more and more of us reaching that age. Caring for those who live with Alzheimer’s and dementia in our aging population will be one of the biggest health challenges of the next few decades.

Other illnesses which were once fatal are now something people can live with for many years – and even recover from. For example, cancer treatment has advanced to such a degree that this disease (once seen as a death sentence) is now much more survivable – and even those for whom a cure isn’t possible can sometimes live with cancer for an extended time. Ongoing care is giving people more time than would have previously been possible, and turning once fatal illnesses into something that can be survived and managed.

This is all something to be celebrated. The killers of previous centuries – from smallpox to scarlet fever – are no longer pressing concerns and medical progress means many people can now live with or recover from an astonishing variety of health problems. Even the prevalence of lifestyle diseases is in part due to people living long enough to develop them, as well as the choices we make.

Therefore, an essential area of focus for our health services isn’t only in curing disease, but in preventing and minimising chronic conditions – therefore ensuring that the gains we have made in medicine and life expectancy don’t become eroded. Protecting and improving quality of life (making sure the extra years medical science has won for our population with are spent enjoying good health) is also a vital consideration.

A crucial part of improving people’s quality of life will involve tackling the extensive incidence of mental health issues which we have seen across society. According to Mind Charity, “approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. In England, 1 in 6 people report experiencing a common mental health problem (such as anxiety and depression) in any given week”.

Yoga in the health services.

It is evident that non-communicable and chronic conditions have become an increasingly urgent health issue across the globe, and here in the UK it is vital both to future-proof our NHS services and give people the tools they need to protect their health and wellbeing.

From a purely economic point of view, chronic conditions are expensive to treat (diabetes prescriptions alone cost the NHS more than 1 billion a year) and as a publicly funded institution, regulating costs is a NHS priority – ultimately to provide best quality of care to the largest amount of people. Creating programs aimed prevention is far less expensive in the long term that treating chronic illnesses when they appear.

Giving people a means through which they can help themselves to manage symptoms could also reduce costs. For example, prescribing someone with chronic pain a yoga course allows them, when the course is completed, to practice yoga throughout the rest of their life. The yogic techniques they have learnt reduce chronic pain and help with its emotional impact.

While it would take more than one blog post to explain yoga’s impact on the various chronic conditions and the specific research which has been carried out, yoga’s benefit as a form of exercise (that includes mindfulness) is diverse and far reaching. Growing scientific literature points to the potential of yoga as a adjunct therapy for everything from back pain to depression, and if given on prescription it could help people take the steps they need to stop certain conditions from growing worse.

Yoga can become part of a wider healthy lifestyle, teaching body awareness that can alert people to musculoskeletal issues in their early stages, while also helping people to manage stress, anxiety and low mood. Empowering people to look after their health through practices such as yoga would give them the opportunity to live not only longer, but happier lives.

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